Pie and Necessary Fiction: Understanding a Bit of New Zealand via Theater

Not the first to observe politically progressive peeps of color returning from similar excursions with insufferable amounts of criticism and sometimes a terrible tattoo. Something approximating a living wage, a lack of American military industrial and prison complexes, universal healthcare, and every type of food in pie-form makes for a comparatively rad country. 

A stay on the North Island, New Zealand, and I have not felt the sun on my face for a week. I’ll explain it through art criticism (What blogs are for, aye?); a reflection on a performance of Hoki Mai Tama Ma, a play written by Tainui Tuewaho, produced by Te Rehia Theatre Company. Logos on the flyer show Creative NZ and the Auckland Council; municipal and federal support of community-based art throughout the country. The State (the political science appellation) pays for arts programs at all levels; narratives are crafted by professionals outside of academia with an emphasis on process and product over ticket sales. “Creative Placemaking,”  the Americans call it. Another world entirely.

The narrative of Hoki Mai Tama Ma will be familiar to those who’ve seen any mid-century American play, who know that universal trauma of our grandparents: the war, of course. Turns out it shuffled us all. A quartet of actors play all parts: a koro (grandfather) flees to Italy where he was a POW, causing his grandson Tama (Rawiri Jobe) to leave work and Pakeha girlfriend (read: haole) Patricia (Ascia Maybury) and the keeping-it-real cousin Bella (Amber Curreen) to determine the reason through koro’s dog-eared diary. Country friend Nuku (Regan Taylor) sings Elvis and the praises of tilling the ground during Matariki. The play weaves between the present and the experience of the grandfather through his diary, reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, simplified. The plot twist, because you will probably never get the chance to see it, is that koro is in fact a surviving Italian friend of the Maori fighters he knew, provoking what it means to be of New Zealand, Maori, defined and redefined by familial relationships and the healing qualities of time. Important history sure enough to warrant the upper levels of the Auckland War Memorial museum but trite at first: the Maori Everything is Illuminated, a ham-handed device worn out sometime last decade.

It could have been, despite excellent acting and production, a bad play. Not quite: The past was presented through characters wearing intricate wooden masks, some with familiar moko, the traditional facial tattoos of Aotearoa, using the pan-Polynesian tradition of intricate carving done by males in well-hewn visages. The war, the POW experience, the humor and the terror, performed in te reo Maori and audacious physicality. But Maori culture has no masks. Nor commedia dell’arte or the tradition of Japanese Noh. A violation of cultural protocol? An innovative use of methods? Not sure, bru. Likely a development in theater, the glorious new; the only plausible way to relate the psychological affects of trauma compartmentalized by time and distance. The only way to tell you a real-life horror story is through fiction, the depth of written experience as performance or prose. The present, the weaker half of the play, was represented in ways familiar to anyone reading this on a screen: cell phones, misunderstood texts, and unsure relationships; the vernacular of whatever the hell it means to be a young adult navigating jobs and self in globalized capitalism.

Here’s what the metro section of the Auckland paper said in review: “It’s almost 40 years since the Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975 and Whina Cooper led the Land March to Parliament, and since then, in this country, we’ve engaged in an ongoing debate about identity – and it’s a debate that’s been both inspiring and enraging for everyone, no matter where they stand in it.” Sound familiar?

Oh, the after party. Fusion Maori-Italian spread (Mussels, mince, and pickles on a platter? Guess so). Bread in place of rice. Sponsorship by a new winery (Bonus!). What do young, creative types talk about at parties, the types with drawn-out answers regarding occupations at introduction? Drinking, mainly. But in addition to the same old: the latest celebrity train-wreck; the uncertainties of our professions; millennials mad keen on buying property–a legitimate leasehold interest in a piece of the earth on which one can build and deconstruct within legal limitations, an endeavor almost entirely forsaken for the comparable generation in Hawai’i. To own a plot, I have been told, is as essential to self-definition as education or creative endeavors for Maori and Pakeha, immigrants and their children. Private property, though it may be the root of inequality for traditional communities, remains a stabilizing mechanism for a middle class. Unfortunate then, that the sister culture to the north, encumbered by American debts and inequality, has been excluded from the discussion.

One more thing: the clear conceptions of self as defined by radiating concentric circles of family relations for indigenous peoples. A play expressing the venn diagrams that describe the extension of connecting oneself to each other, to land, will feel exceedingly familiar to Polynesian audiences. But for those who identify as the children of migrants or immigrants; those who have had to forget to create new, more prosperous lives for children; it can be a familiar experience of observance. The narrative also makes apparent the alternate necessary fiction of those without ties to land, who have been told that there is no “back there” anymore; no nurturing motherland coursing through bloodlines; the millions of dash Americans that create much of the art in the western world. We understand masks well. Trauma too. For us, we must carry our homes within us, enabling us to fly.

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