An almost forgotten moment in our history, brought into the spotlight by a gutsy new theatre show, reveals uncomfortable truths about the history of race relations in Aotearoa.
In a country that has until very recently avoided teaching its own history in schools, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a confrontation between university students in the 1970s that lasted just three minutes is largely unknown among New Zealanders.
For almost half a century, University of Auckland engineering students took part in a controversial capping day rite of passage that included performing mock versions of haka.
Empowered by ignorance and breakfast beers, students would take to the streets of central Auckland, bodies painted to parody tā moko and wearing Hawaiian-esque grass skirts.
But their yearly antics came to a dramatic halt on May 1, 1979.
For 20 years leading up to this, Māori activists had been penning letters asking for the students to stop performing the offensive haka.
Fed up with the lack of success through official channels, a group of Māori activists who went by the name He Taua tried a new tactic. One autumn day, they met the engineering students kanohi ki te kanohi, in what they intended to be a non-violent protest.
The plan went awry and led to a three-minute brawl between the groups. Following the confrontation, He Taua members were charged with various offences and were labelled as gang members by much of the media at the time. Their plan worked though – they had brought an end to the haka party ritual.
Writer and director of The Haka Party Incident, Katie Wolfe, read about these events in Ranginui Walker’s 1990 book Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou. Realising the significance of the largely forgotten event, she became fascinated with the details surrounding it. When commissioned by Auckland Theatre Company in 2017, Wolfe began meticulously researching and interviewing sources.
Wolfe video-recorded interviews with over 28 people tied to the incident in various ways. Court and media transcripts along with these real-life accounts have compounded into what is an impressive historical account, presented on stage. Set within the confines of a politically charged era of Māori protest, we hear the story of what led to the confrontation and the aftermath told by activists, sandal-clad haka party participants, students and police.
Politically and stylistically, it’s a radical step for the Auckland Theatre Company, which is known for sticking to a relatively conservative programme.
Notably, it’s the company’s first foray into the genre of verbatim theatre, a type of documentary theatre that solely uses real people’s words delivered word for word by the cast. This method of using testimony from recorded interviews is a powerful tool within activist theatre, offering a direct way of informing and giving voice to oppressed groups.
Seven actors, Roimata Fox, Neenah Dekkers-Reihana, Richard Te Are, Patrick Tafa, Lauren Gibson, Aidan O’Malley and Jarred Blakiston, play an ambitious 38 different characters between them. It’s all done masterfully as they flick from role to role, sometimes instantaneously – quickly shifting stance, gait and cadence. Especially poignant was hearing the words of activist Miriama Rauhihi Ness, who passed away last month.
While the sparseness of the stage is at first jarring, eventually the busyness of the characters, their stories and their emotion completely fill the space. Dialogue shifts between intensely funny, to heartbreakingly sad in a single beat. That’s at times uncomfortable, and likely says something about the colourful nature of history.
It would, I assume, be quite easy for the costumes in a production set in the 1970s to look contrived. Bypassing far-out, funky and freaky fashions, costume designer Alison Reid opted for costumes that are instead impressive in their casualness. Era-specific proportions, relaxed denim and suitably awkward tops are matched with almost matching woollen jackets that tie the cast together visually.
Kapa haka in a stage performance context doesn’t in itself break new ground – on-stage competitions like Te Matatini and upcoming Polyfest are huge. But the way that The Haka Party Incident intertwines haka and waiata into the show seems to open new possibilities of kapa haka performance within theatre, and it’s a credit to both the cast and to kaiako and composer Nīkau Balme (also Katie Wolfe’s son). Purposefully off-beat versions of Akarana, the University of Auckland haka composed by Te Rangi Hīroa, are contrasted with hearty waiata and haka performed with a whole lot of might and mana by the cast.
It’s hard to overstate just how important it is to this story that the butchered haka are contrasted with performances exhibiting the power of the haka. The cast absolutely pulled this off – watching strong haka always makes me cry, and this was no exception.
The Haka Party Incident also gives a big nod to Māori activist theatre through the inclusion of two waiata sung by the actors, ‘In the Past’ and ‘Hey Māori People’. Both songs were composed by Nopera Pikari, Ana Meihana and others in 1979 for Maranga Mai, a Māori theatre group. In the 1970s, Maranga Mai presented shows that portrayed Māori experiences and current events as a counterbalance to dominant Pākehā representations of society.
Thanks to the work of those behind The Haka Party Incident, the nearly forgotten impact of these activists has been brought back into our cultural consciousness. It may have been more than 40 years since the incident took place, but the act of resilience by He Taua holds enduring relevance.
The Haka Party portrays a fascinating story in our race relations history, but it by no way pretends the struggle stopped there. They might not make headlines consistently, but right now iwi and hapū groups around the country are making significant fights for tino rangatiratanga by way of the courts, occupations, hīkoi and social media. For Māori, and for other groups – as we’ve seen through Black Lives Matter, Asians Against Hate and the calls for acknowledgement of the Dawn Raids – knowing our history is the way forward. The Haka Party does an excellent job of making this point.
The Haka Party Incident, more documentary than theatre, really, should be essential viewing. And it seems there’s an audience hungry for this type of story, with the final two nights (tonight and Saturday) at ASB’s Waterfront Theatre now sold out – perhaps a sign there should be another run of the show.
The gaps in our historical knowledge loom especially large in our race relations in New Zealand. Works like this, that shed light on a relatively fleeting moment from the past, help fill in these blank spaces for audiences. It’s a slow process, trying to colour the expanses of time you’ve been in the dark about, but it’s also rewarding. And necessary too.