Dynamic Māori plays, David O’Donnell

Ta Matou Mangai: Three Plays of the 1990s.
ed Hone Kouka
Victoria University Press, $ 24.95,
ISBN 0 86473 348 8

The publication of He Reo Hou, the first anthology of Maori plays, in 1990 was a landmark event, acknowledging the new power of Maori writing for the theatre by writers such as Riwia Brown and John Broughton. Since then, a number of significant Maori plays have been published, notably by Huia and Victoria University Press. This new volume, edited by leading playwright Hone Kouka, illustrates that Maori writing has become one of the most dynamic forces in New Zealand theatre.

Ta Matou Mangai (Our Own Voice) would be worth buying for Kouka’s introduction alone. It is the most comprehensive history of Maori theatre yet written, a formal recognition of the seminal influence of a range of Maori theatre practitioners, including Rowley Habib, Roma Potiki, Rangimoana Taylor, Apirana Taylor and Jim Moriarty. The illustrations which accompany the introduction provide visual evidence of the diversity of Maori work which has evolved throughout the 90s, ranging from historical images to contemporary realism and the surreal.

This diversity is also reflected in the choice of the three plays for this book, spearheaded by Whatungarongaro (1990), arguably one of the most significant productions in the evolution of Maori theatre. The play was created by Roma Potiki and the He Ara Hou company on the Kapiti coast, and was subsequently toured widely, including an acclaimed season at the Adelaide Festival in 1992. The collective-devising process led to a production which mixed social realism with a wide range of performative influences, including whaikorero, haka, waiata, mask work, rap, martial arts and the dance hall.

Although the writing (in Kouka’s words) “lacks the finesse of later work”, the original production had an energetic theatricality which is suggested in the printed text by precise stage directions. The play deals with cycles of abuse within a whanau; as a teenage boy, Dean, rejects his alcoholic mother and takes to a glue-sniffing lifestyle on the streets. It’s a familiar story, but given freshness through interweaving stylised passages in which masked birds compete with an evil spirit for Dean’s soul. The play provides strong roles for women, and a fiercely anti-romantic attitude towards relationships which end in violence and the desire to get “out of it”. Although most of the dialogue is in prosaic English, Te Reo is used sparingly to create a haunting lyricism, supported by poetry and the visual imagery. I was reminded of Jack Davis’s The Dreamers (1982) in which the disturbing realism of contemporary urban Aboriginal existence is intercut with images of tribal Dreamings. Whatungarongaro balances multiple scenic realities and thus creates sophisticated stage imagery that transcends the rawness of its dramaturgy.

While Whatungarongaro is the most overtly theatrical of the three plays, Wiremu Davis’s Taku Mangai (1991) achieves its impact by the simplicity of the monologue form. Kouka links it to the New Zealand solo play tradition pioneered by Bruce Mason, and the play is also in the tradition of Maori storytelling, openly autobiographical and resonant with the feisty characters and politics of the marae. This is the play which takes most easily to the printed page, settling there like a well-formed short story.

Davis is a true raconteur, providing a moving and witty insight into his relationship with his family and religion. At one point a list of the different religions his father subscribed to before becoming a Ratana minister is reeled off like a racing commentary. Elsewhere the language is spare and evocative, with moments of great power, such as the children cowering in the bedroom as their parents battle drunkenly in the next room, praying that the fighting will stop. The fears and misconceptions of childhood are beautifully captured, and balanced with a wry humour (the young Willie decides he likes church when he’s given a plate of money, but is dismayed when he learns he has to give it back again).

The most surprising work is Riwia Brown’s Irirangi Bay (1996), which in espousing the film noir genre escapes the narrow expectations that Maori theatre will be primarily political and/or spiritual. Like The Sojourns of Boy (1999), co-written by Briar Grace-Smith and Jo Randerson, this is work by a Maori writer which explores non-realist theatrical traditions with a subversive energy that confused and upset some critics at the premiere performance.

It’s interesting that Brown wrote this play two years after achieving fame as the screenwriter of Once Were Warriors. In contrast with the contemporary realist language of that film and the other plays in this volume, in Irirangi Bay Brown carefully recreates the polite, middle-class vernacular of the 1950s, masking a subtext which becomes increasingly sinister. As a newly-wed couple arrive at their new home, a grand homestead in remote Irirangi Bay, their happiness evolves into a nightmare when they learn of the makutu (curse) which has been placed on the bay to acknowledge the deaths of a pair of lovers who took their own lives. The melodramatic tone builds consistently, and is expressed both in lines such as “Life can be such a cruel mistress and death her only reward”, and images such as the young woman spiking her husband’s drink with a sedative. As in Maori plays such as Nga Tangata Toa (1994) and Purapurawhetu (1997), the dramatic tension in the plot hinges on the revelation of a secret from the past. While issues such as racism, mixed genealogy and the loss of Maori land are evoked, they are secondary to a structure of progressive complications and dramatic revelations, which are the legacy of the 19th century well-made play. Within this framework, Brown creates a gripping and highly readable thriller.

Ta Matou Mangai has been published with great care and attention to detail and the practice of fully contextualising each play is appropriate for texts which only achieve their full life in the theatre. The highly textured cover illustration (appropriately a detail from the set of Grace-Smith’s Flat Out Brown) is a reflection of the richness which lies within. The volume is completed with a glossary of Maori words and a full whakapapa of Maori plays to date. While Roma Potiki’s introduction to He Reo Hou stressed the politics of performance, Kouka’s edition is more concerned with aesthetics. The politics are still there, but have become more complex and are secondary to the artistic confidence and spread of the work. While Ta Matou Mangai will clearly become an essential tool in the teaching of Maori theatre, it is also a highly accessible book which will be read with enjoyment by anyone interested in new writing or the state of the theatre of Aotearoa New Zealand.

David O’Donnell teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.

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