James Nokise was born in Waikato hospital on a wintery day.
“The doctor thought I had jaundice because he didn’t realise my dad was Samoan” James laughs as we sip Kenyan coffee at Mojo Market Lane. “My mum remembers the doctor trying to explain to her I had jaundice while the nurses tried to explain to the doctor that the Samoan man was the father. The doctor came out and congratulated the man next to my Dad about having a son, because he couldn’t comprehend a Samoan man with an afro being married to a Welsh woman. My father was chaplin of Waikato University at the time – but needless to say we didn’t stay in Hamilton that long after that.” James’s family moved to Wellington not long after. After that abrupt start to life, a fair question would be "Who is James Nokise?"
WHO IS JAMES NOKISE?
Comedy.co.nz describes him as the following: "A 2013 Fred Dagg Comedy Award Nominee and 2 time Billy T Comedy Award Nominee, Welsh-Samoan comedian, James Nokise, has carved out a reputation in New Zealand going after everything from gangs, to politicians, to stereotypes within Pacific Culture." For me, James is a friendly Wellington face and a very clever man.
I know James because not long after the launch of The Residents, my first interviewee Alice Brine had us both perform in a session of 'The Watercooler' in Wellington (had I known James was so experienced in the art of laughs, I might not have done it!). James session reflected on growing up in the Hutt and finding himself in various scrapes. You can read or listen to the whole background here.
HOW DID HE GET HERE?
Growing up James moved around various suburbs in Wellington after his parents split up. He then grew up in Lower Hutt, has lived most of his adult life in Newtown (and currently is living at his father’s place in the Hutt, while James is in-between flats).
James first encountered performing at University. “I ended up doing law and all these papers I thought I wanted to do – I was lost. There were too many options. It had been a struggle to get to university so it was kind of like – what now?”
Someone suggested James do an amateur play. It just so happened that the play had comedian Ben Hurley, future Billy-T winner Mrs Peacock and, also hanging around, was Steve Wriggly who was head of the improv group at the time. Safe to say, James was sucked in. James ended up controversially changing his major from law to theatre.
James moved to the UK after university to pursue his career. After he has gone full-time he experienced a break-up and chose to move back to New Zealand. He ended up writing a play, getting drunk, ranting about the state of New Zealand having moved overseas, wrote another play, accidentally became a political commentator, and has since ended up creating and touring Fringe Festival shows around the world. “I’m a standup comedian by trade but I am an international Fringe Artist,” he says of how he explains himself.
WHAT DOES HIS FAMILY MAKE OF IT ALL?
James says his whole family have ‘been cool’ with his change to theatre, especially “since my father signed off.” “It is still one of the most awkward conversations I’ve ever had with my father, telling him I wanted to go from a law major to a theatre degree. He was livid. A week later my father was at a conference in the islands and one of the Laughing Samoans approached him, Eteuati Ete. He told me father that he had done stand-up with me and thought I was really good. My father came back with all these theatre books about Pacific theatre books. That's how I knew it was ok and signed off. It was amazing because in New Zealand, it is impossible to find that kind of literature. You have to go to Samoa in person to find it.”
While James admits that there would have once been a strong leaning towards him being a lawyer or a doctor, he is supported by his family, community and has been embraced as a contemporary Samoan performer.
HOW HAS HE GROWN AS A PERFORMER? WHAT WILL HE BE DOING AT THE FRINGE?
To date, James has been performing for fifteen years. He performs in an organic fashion, but admits he wishes he was as engaged and intelligent with his work when he was younger as he is now. These days his skin is darker than when he was a younger man which has helped James become more comfortable as a performer, representing the Samoan community.
His latest piece at the Fringe Festival 2017, Fouvale Imperium, is a piece of oral poetry about James Cook, something James acknowledges he needed help with from the fairer sex. “It starts with him coming around the tip of Chile and around the Pacific Islands. Some of the reactions are from female Pacific writers. I try and incorporate female voices because I am always conscious that as a male in my mid-thirties there is inherent misogyny in my work. That’s why I always use a female director. It balances it out, to a degree."
WHAT DOES HE LIKE?
It's safe to say performance is a passion for James Nokise. He also plays computer games to switch off and tries to travel somewhere he is not working from time to time.
“I’m a preacher's son and a preacher's grandson,” James says “I have a deep concern that people will end up at a sermon if I am not careful. I also worry about being wrong. I am not coming with the authority of academia behind me. Lots of it is based on life experience. I also worry about incoherency. I am an alcoholic and often these days I need to think about memory. I lost a lot of mental speed when I got sober. It is like sometimes I am meeting people again for the first time. I’ll see people and they’ll be like “Hey man!” and I will say to them “Did we do a show together?”. They’ll be like “We did a whole weekend!”
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
James wants his show to be fun. He knows his limitations as a poet so he wants to play with it. “You’ll also learn about Captain Cook. It’s crazy we don’t learn more about him in schools as kids!” James observes.
Wellington is home for James. “Wellington is where I see when I close my eyes,” says James. “If I think of Wellington during the daytime I think of the harbour. If I think of it at night time I think of the motorway and the lights coming into the city.” James notes that Auckland is a series of different villages, unlike Wellington which he thinks is more diverse, leading to a collaborative city. Because of the different villages in Auckland, James says, different ethnicities can stay in their own turf. In Wellington, James says he is forced to think about multiculturalism in his work because Wellingtonian’s assimilate together. "People are brought together by the same bars and cafes. We all are side by side."