It's taken three attempts for Auckland Theatre Company to get The Haka Party Incident to the stage, delayed twice by the level 4 and February lockdowns. Almost as soon as the play begins, you can see why the company was so keen to deliver this work – and why it was the only production from the ATC's cancelled 2020 programme to be resurrected in 2021.
For decades, engineering students at the University of Auckland had an annual tradition where they would dress up in grass skirts and fake tattoos to perform the university's haka, Akarana, during capping week. That ended on May 1,1979, when He Taua activists confronted the students ahead of that year's graduation ceremony – sparking a three-minute brawl that saw the activists arrested and charged with rioting.
More than 40 years later, director and writer Katie Wolfe has documented the lead-up to the event, what happened on the day, and the far-reaching consequences this brief incident had on New Zealand society. Wolfe sourced interviews with dozens of those from both sides involved in the incident, and their words are delivered verbatim by the Haka Party's ensemble to make a live documentary.
Much of the power of Haka Party comes from the seven-piece cast, and their task is a gruelling one; the stage is covered by white tiles and nothing else - a blank canvas that is entirely on them to fill with the dozens of characters they each need to portray.
Yet, despite a two-hour, non-stop runtime, the relatively young ensemble never falters, effortlessly moving through distinct characters in the blink of an eye, and powerfully evoking the pain and conflict experienced by all sides.
Wolfe's scripts weaves the stories and perspectives seamlessly together, finding occasional comedy amid the pathos. One scene where a group of white students awkwardly try to sing John Lennon's Imagine moves elegantly into a powerful waiata, one of the play's many moving uses of song and performance.
Unfortunately, the play feels overlong, particularly in the last hour, where Wolfe seems uncertain of how to end a story that really has no ending, and suggests a second voice in the writers or directors chair could have helped tighten things up.
Yet the length should not discount this powerful story. As someone who was not alive in 1979, and who had not heard of this incident before the play was announced, this was a prime example of theatre's power to inform, educate and enlighten audiences as well as entertain.
With Black Lives Matter and anti-Asian hate continuing to dominate headlines, it is an understatement to say Haka Party's message – one ultimately of cultural respect and acknowledging the past – is timely. You need only to look at the recent social media controversy after the America's Cup win to see that some attitudes have not changed over 40 years, and reflecting on our history is more important than ever.
ATC should also be commended for taking a risk with a play that is very untypical for them and their audience, and perhaps the boldest thing they've staged since Eleanor Bishop's Boys in 2017. For a company often criticised for not telling enough locally relevant stories, this is an astounding 180 that should set the benchmark for future company programmes.
ATC's one misstep here is scheduling The Haka Party Incident for only a short two-week run. From the rousing first haka to the sombre closing moments, The Haka Party Incident is an innovative, brilliant piece of theatre all New Zealanders need to see.
What: The Haka Party Incident
Where: ASB Waterfront Theatre until April 10