A violent stoush between university students and an activist group which changed New Zealand race relations forever features in a new documentary theatre show in Auckland this weekend.

Writer and director Katie Wolfe has spent months tracking down and persuading former University of Auckland engineering students and members of activist group He Taua to talk about the "Haka Party Incident".

It took place on May 1, 1979 when about 25 He Taua members confronted engineering students preparing for their annual capping week haka party. Since 1955, the students, wearing grass skirts and carrying fake taiaha, had staged a mock haka on Auckland's Queen St.

They said it was good fun but by the late 1970s, an increasing number of their fellow students viewed it as racist and offensive. According to reports, it had descended to the engineers writing swear words and drawing sexual organs on their bodies.

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Despite complaints to the students' association and the university, the Race Relations Office and Maori leaders, the students refused to stop so He Taua took matters into its own hands. They challenged students as they readied themselves for the performance and the brief but bloody confrontation which followed left some with cuts, bruises and broken bones.

Eleven He Taua representatives were arrested and charged with a number of offences; the subsequent court case led to a tough look at New Zealanders' attitudes to racism and responses to it. The students never performed the mock haka again.

Wolfe first learned of the Haka Party Incident while reading Dr Ranginui Walker's book Ka whawhai tonu matou.

"Like many New Zealanders, I was not taught our country's history at school and I was catching up," she says.

"I saw it as a moment of violence that had erupted around issues of racism. This seemed to me a very significant event and I was confused as to why it was virtually unknown."

Further investigations revealed a number of well-known New Zealanders were connected to the event including former MP Hone Harawira. In 2009, some 30 years after the skirmish, protesters - including Harawira and his wife Hilda - were welcomed back by the School of Engineering.

Interviewed that day, Harawira told the NZ Herald he stood by the group's actions that day: "When people refuse to do what's right, at the end of the day you step in, do what you've got to do."

Wolfe says the 40-minute performance The Haka Party Incident explores the differing views and experiences of those who were there - then and now - and considers what led to the incident, what happened on the day, arrests and subsequent reaction at Auckland University.

She originally wanted to make a documentary film and when that didn't work out, shelved the idea but dusted off plans when Auckland Theatre Company asked her to develop a new piece of theatre.

"I'm not looking for blame or condemnation," Wolfe says.

"I just want to hear what the participants experienced. The different groups involved were living very different lives; their realities as New Zealanders at that time were poles apart. The idea we were all one happy nation, having a similar experience was not so.

"It's good to continually question the nature of racism in society. Any normalisation of racism means there will be people whose lives are adversely affected by the attitudes. I also hope that we can push past the label 'racist'. It's not useful calling individuals racists; our focus should be on society and how racism exists in our everyday lives."

Wolfe says she asked each of the actors involved to ask everyone they met in weeks leading up to rehearsals whether they'd heard of the Haka Party Incident.

"Out of 100 replies, there was only one person who had."

She still hopes to make a film which will widen the scope of her investigation to consider why the Haka Party Incident was forgotten.

The Haka Party Incident is part of Auckland Theatre Company's The Navigators project to develop new theatre work and is billed as an opportunity to experience theatre in the making. It also includes a dance work, Moon, by choreographer Malia Johnston and an original environmental fable called The Wild Seed Thief created and directed by Kate Parker.

The Navigators is at the ASB Waterfront Theatre from Friday-Sunday. See www.atc.co.nz for times and ticket prices.