A theatre show to be staged in Auckland will confront institutionalised racism and shine a light on a piece of our history that its director says has been swept under the rug.
Haka Party Incident is based on an event
that director Katie Wolfe says changed race relations in Aotearoa. It retells the story of a group of University of Auckland engineering students who had an annual tradition to mock the haka.
"The idea that New Zealand was a country of institutionalised racism was talked about for the first time in 1979 and paved the way for the Māori renaissance of the 1980s," Wolfe told the Herald.
For decades, engineering students would dress up in grass skirts, perform the university haka, Akarana, and would draw penises and curse words on their bodies in mockery of the tā moko and puhoro.
"The word they used at the time was the 'bastardisation' of the haka.
On May 1, 1979, a group of activists by the name of He Taua confronted the students and demanded a stop to their tradition, which quickly resulted in an "almighty brawl".
"The brawl lasted three to five minutes, He Taua were charged with rioting and stood trial in which they were convicted. From that came [a] race relations inquiry," she said.
Wolfe says she stumbled across this piece of history in a book by late academic writer Ranginui Walker, called Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou, and it stuck with her.
Wolfe believes there was a wilfulness to forget the event. "Particularly for the engineering students and the school. They weren't able to contextualise at the time.
"Pākehā are defensive about the story because it's this fear of getting blamed.
"It's hard to confront those questions about how our nation was built. One of the focuses of the production is to not attribute blame to anybody but actually to try and find new language for us to discuss racism.
"Once we can talk about it, we can own it and not repeat the mistakes of the past, and have aroha for those who suffered the impacts of that racism.
"We explore this idea of 'Pākehā guilt' and how that acts out.
The Haka Party Incident is a piece of verbatim theatre, a script compiled from real-life interviews and recreated by the actors exactly as they were spoken.
For some of the staff, it's become a personal journey.
"What I've learned along the way in telling this story is that the kaupapa is actually really relevant still. We're addressing those racist aspects in society today.
"Our perceptions of racism have really sharpened. That's the kaupapa, we're unpacking the mechanisms of racism within society.
"It's like you start seeing it everywhere. Systemic racism is a very complex issue but is still very prevalent in society."
The cast have also stepped outside of their comfort zones as some aren't te reo speakers nor have ever performed a haka (the play has seven different haka).
"It's been a mountain to climb, so just watching the actors take on that challenge has been incredible."
The University of Auckland is apparently enthusiastic about the play, with some staff set to attend its opening.
"I met with the university's executive to seek permission to perform their haka. They were incredibly enthusiastic and have acknowledged the hurt of the past.
"Janet Roth, who was the president of Auckland University Students' Association lost her job over this, so hopefully she comes."
Katie Wolfe's standout piece will be presented on the main stage at ASB Waterfront Theatre, as part of the 2021 Auckland Arts Festival/Te Ahurei Toi o Tāmaki and the rescheduled season runs March 30 – April 10.