More Māori stories are coming to a stage near you, thanks to the next generation of theatre-makers determined to expand the repertoire and work in new ways, finds Dione Joseph
Whether you believe in the institution of marriage (or not), the commonly held belief is that the imminent union of two souls should be a celebration of love and family - where the emphasis is (or should be) on the couple and their bright future.
It's a strangely enduring fib - or love just makes you ridiculously gullible – because big weddings are actually where families show their true colours. There's the banshee mother-of-the-groom, the reprimanding father-of-the-bride, the wise uncle - and, of course, all the cuzzies with uninvited opinions galore.
If you haven't experienced an indigenous wedding (especially one bringing two different First Nation families together) then the next best thing would be to RSVP to a landmark collaboration in transtasman theatre history and see Black Ties.
It's the world's first Māori-Aboriginal stage rom-com, unequivocally wedding drama fodder which is heart-warming and feel-good; like a Marmite and cheese toastie with a good cuppa tea.
Judging by the rave reviews in Sydney, this collaboration between Victoria's state theatre company, Ilbijerri and Auckland's Te Rēhia theatre, promises New Zealand a rollicking good time. Those reviews have talked about the production's high aesthetic values, nuanced humour and cultural specificity.
Black Ties is a start to a new decade - one that may promise different ways of doing things for Māori and other indigenous theatre-makers. It's worth understanding just why this production is epic.
There's the show itself; family drama at its best. Hera (Tuakoi Ohia) who is Māori and Kane (Mark Coles Smith) who is Aboriginal, have fallen in love. Of course, their respective mothers can't abide the thought that their beloved children might marry someone outside their respective indigenous communities and be trotted off to a foreign land. What follows is the expected clash of cultures as both parties do their best to welcome their potential in-laws, while still keeping a sharp and critical eye on who's doing what.
It also comes with an all-star cast, including Lana Garland, Laughton Kora, Brady Peeti, Uncle Jack Charles, Mark Coles Smith and Tuakoi Ohia and a live band rocking out retro wedding classics.
But it's a tad more than that. What makes Black Ties standout is that the story is never in relation to Māori vs Pākeha or blackfulla vs whitefulla. Written by Tainui Tukiwaho (who also plays the bride's father) with Torres Strait Islander John Harvey, it's a romantic comedy and is symptomatic of deeper changes for indigenous theatre and for New Zealand and Australia, too.
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Te Rēhia producer Amber Curreen, despite having the mammoth task of bringing the production to life, hasn't let anything squelch her passion.
"I get excited listening to our people respond to the story, hearing different sections of Māori and blackfulla audiences cracking up at different parts of the play and seeing people's faces light up," Curreen says. "This experience is a first for our cast and crew - and that's revolutionary. Never before have we brought so many indigenous artists to make story together and looking around the room, I'm reminded how transformative this experience is for us all."
For Curreen, Māori Theatre is led by Māori and made in a way that "will whakamana te ao Māori and is primarily for a Māori audience". She notes that it has always carried a lot of meaning.
"Māori theatre has been a protest, a vehicle for change, a discussion, a way for urban Māori to discover their whakapapa. It is a means to educate, entertain and affirm our people and our stories."
Both she and Tukiwaho, who co-founded Te Rēhia theatre, see Black Ties as heralding a transition.
"Led by us and for us, we can make very real changes for our people through the arts," they say. "We're headed to a place of greater international unity and at the same time greater focus on regional arts development - like a tree with branches that stretches far and wide we will always have deep roots into our whenua."
Tukiwaho says during the past five years, Te Rēhia has been able to build relationships with different First Nation peoples' performing arts organisations, including Rachael Maza from Ilbijerri, which lead to collaborations and making work.
The kaupapa for both groups has been simple: "We wanted to make a show for our uncles and aunties, for our elders and our children - and that has been our compass through nearly two years of development."
It's a sentiment echoed by Rachael Maza, artistic director of Ilbijerri Theatre and co-director of the show. As the daughter of the late Bob Maza (co-founder of the Nindethana Theatre with Jack Charles) both Rachael and her sister Lisa (who plays mother-of-the-groom) have been immersed in the activism and politics of Aboriginal theatre since they were children.
However, even with such a wealth of experience, according to the renowned Australian director, working with Te Rēhia was game-changing.
"Ilbijerri has undertaken many collaborations but never with another First Nations company - I've learned so much from working alongside and watching how Te Rēhia work. Both our companies have been exploring what constitutes 'how we work' and that's essential to our process because it's embedded with our values and protocols."
For both indigenous arts companies, it was "easy" on several levels primarily due to a shared valued system that included honouring elders and children and an unwavering commitment to create a large festival-scale work.
However, no collaboration is free of challenges and Black Ties was no exception. Under a tight time-frame both companies had to explore new ways of working and where necessary, make changes to streamline the process.
Māori and Aboriginal communities share similarities as indigenous cousins across the Tasman but – and this may seem obvious – they are still very different. Australia has no Treaty - a point made repeatedly throughout the production - and there are also very different battles (at different stages) being fought in regard to sovereignty and self-determination.
"Bringing together multiple writers across the Tasman and dealing with time zones wasn't easy," says Tukiwaho, "but it was more about finding the right tone for a music filled comedy that speaks to casual and institutionalised racism - and the systems that continue to breed that racism both in Aotearoa and Australia."
In confronting this, the sweet family favourite rom-com ends up being a special kind of Trojan horse. The real win for the creators was successfully making a complex work that cleverly layered the politics of First Nations' challenges into a rib-tickling comedy.
"We've smuggled in a socio-political commentary on First Nation experiences through intelligent humour," says Curreen, "and what's better is that we know the audiences who have come together - to laugh, cry, sing along and have a big party in our theatre - they totally get that."
But Black Ties doesn't stand on its own; it comes as part of a changing and growing theatre scene and the re-defining of what "Māori Theatre" means today. Established in 1983, Taki Rua has long been at the forefront of Māori theatre in Aotearoa. Producing, commissioning and developing new work, especially in Te Reo Māori, the company has given a number of our current practitioners breadth beneath their wings to soar.
Theatre and film veteran Briar Grace-Smith says she grew up steeped in Māori theatre and several of her works, including Nga Pou Wahine and Purapurawhetu were staged by Taki Rua.
"It was whānau to me, it nurtured and challenged me. It gave us young practitioners a place where we felt safe to tell our stories - which weren't like most we'd seen on mainstream stages - and also, a chance to explore my own voice.
"Māori theatre has been around since we've been around," she says. "We have always been people who use performance to strengthen the power of our words (and teachings) and for me, it simply means stories told by us, in our own way."
Likewise, actor, playwright and director Miriama McDowell believes that it's more about the way theatre gets made – the tikanga – rather than the work itself or the people involved.
"For me, Māori theatre is when I feel most at ease as a practitioner," McDowell says, adding that it will continue to evolve and develop especially as pre-conceived expectations about fitting into certain genres – often defined by European traditions – are set aside.
Indeed many playwrights are still looking for support for the idea that Māori can write whatever they damn well like. Aroha Awarau (Luncheon, Officer 27) opens his new play Provocation next week as part of Auckland Pride Festival. It's a play about the "gay panic defence" which allowed the killers of gay men to escape murder convictions by claiming the killings were "provoked".
"Just because we are writers who are Māori doesn't mean that we are only capable of writing about issues that are often associated with us - such as the appalling statistics around domestic violence or incarceration," says Awarau.
"I'm afraid when people in the industry identify a play as 'Māori theatre', it ghettoises our work and forces us to tick boxes like, 'Is it in te reo Māori? Is it about child abuse? Does it end in a haka?' If the key creatives – the writer, director, producer, etc - are Māori, that's 'Maori Theatre' - even if it's set in space."
So, can the extra sought-after diversity in stories happen without a substantial influx of cash or changes to funding models? Playwright Albert Belz (Astroman, Raising the Titanics, Yours Truly) is sceptical.
"My current concern is the huge lack of funding on this side of the Tasman," he says. "We are definitely the poor cousin and aroha doesn't pay the bills anymore so it would be nice to match the cost of making an indigenous colab theatre with Australia on a 50/50 basis - which isn't currently the case."
Belz's point about funding is inextricably linked to what gets made – and therefore what audiences get to see – and links back to having to prove "how 'Māori' is your work?".
"If it doesn't tick the boxes, you are forced to apply in a more competitive general round, so many Māori writers are disadvantaged because their work is not deemed Māori enough," says Belz. "I believe those boundaries create token aspects in our work. Māori writers are not given the freedom to express themselves fully because funding from our main government body is cut off."
But despite ongoing concerns about funding, it hasn't deterred Māori creatives or their determination to keep making work. Tukiwaho and Curreen, often fondly referred to the "working parents" for several Māori theatre-makers, set up Te Pou as the Auckland home for Māori theatre.
Playwright and writer Annette Morehu (Temperance) says during the past six years, Māori theatre makers have found at the West Auckland venue a safe space to create and produce quality productions with Māori narratives.
"Many of us have been able to obtain the training and experience that's helped us be recognised and subsequently employed, in mainstream theatre," she says. "I don't think this would have been possible without a place like Te Pou where w, and our stories, are readily welcomed."
Actor and playwright Daedae Tekoronga-Waka (Call Girl) is equally vocal about creating such spaces and, like Morehu, has also been active at Te Pou.
"In an industry that already has a certain system, I'd like to see that system slowly broken down because it isn't working for us," she says. "Although we are making waves, we still have a lot more work to do and hopefully, we can stop box-ticking and go back to the ART, holding the mirror up to society and saying, 'Hey look! This is us.'"
Morehu says the changes Black Ties is creating bolsters her aspirations:"I'm interested in seeing Māori and indigenous writers developing authentic and original theatre so that we can see ourselves in our nation's stories, and then insert those stories into the global narrative.
"We often complain that we don't have enough of our stories out there; the only way that is going to happen is if more of us take up the pen/laptop and be brave enough to tell them, particularly us women," she says. "It is a well-known fact that the most under-told story is that of the coloured woman - if we aren't going to tell our own stories, then who will?"
From her perspective of decades of activism work through theatre, Maza is caught in a moment where she finds herself confronted with an ongoing personal reflection: "What am I doing?"
She says, "I look around at the world and I feel like we are all in some sort of 'psychosis of denial'. We see rainforests burning that have never burnt, we hear about the ever-growing list of animals soon to be extinct; we feel the rising heat, the electricity prices, the growing racially fuelled tensions in the street, on the TV - AND YET ... we just keep doing what we've always been doing? Are we insane?
"I guess, yes, we are. That's why we make art. To help us survive."
For that reason, among many others, Black Ties is a landmark endeavour that inspires artists to continue building bridges even though the stakes are higher. Having already won audiences with its high aesthetic values, nuanced humour and cultural specificity, Black Ties is a promise, a knot of commitment, that can inspire more indigenous artists to continue building bridges - across land, languages and cultures.
What: BLACK TIES
Where & when: New Zealand Festival of the Arts – TSB Auditorium (Shed 6), Wednesday, March 4 – Saturday, March 7; Auckland Arts Festival – Waitākere Room, Aotea Centre, Wednesday, March 11 – Sunday, March 29