Combining a five-course banquet with pan-Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa storytelling and dance, Takurua: Battle of the Brothers is a unique theatre experience coming to Elemental Festival in Auckland.
The word takurua in its Cook Island iteration is a concept along the lines of manaakitanga, in which a varied and splendid display of hospitality is conjured. It’s a call by which the best of everything – performers, cooks and hunter-gatherers – are hailed and asked to bring their A game to a bacchanal of decidedly Pacific proportions.
Here, however, in its modern incarnation under Tala Productions, which has been aiding Pacific storytelling for 30-odd years, the call takes on something more nuanced. Call it a revival. Call it a second coming. Either way, Takurua: Battle of the Brothers, a five-course banquet accompanied by theatre and dance performance, promises to be much more than its tagline of “theatre by way of food”.
The project was initially conceived by Tausani Simei-Papali while he was working alongside the tourism industry in the Cook Islands. Even before the inspiration for this particular event struck, he had a vision for greater cultural visibility within an industry which too often culls unique Pasifika aspects which western travellers might find unfamiliar or threatening. For Simei-Papali, the objective was to bring these elements into greater focus.
“I was in Rarotonga helping with hospitality and tourism there, trying to get them to use their own food and cuisine rather than showcasing western cuisine… If I wanna eat this I’ll just stay in Auckland! I went there to promote using their own products, a pride in being Indigenous. So that’s how it started.”
But here in New Zealand, his ambition pivoted towards pan-Pacific solidarity. And so Takurua: Battle of Brothers was born.
“The actual plot for Battle of the Brothers is based on ancient deities, reaching back to before the Pacific was individualised. Using an ancient language. I wanted to do that because though Māori and Pasifika are different peoples with different histories, we have a shared ancestry.”
When Simei-Papali came home with a mind to repeating the project here, one of the people he contacted for help with the project was Euro head chef Wallace Mua Frost.
“I basically just asked people I’d been a longstanding fan of,” says Simei-Papali.
Frost jumped at the chance, eager to see a little more sovereignty in the kitchen. He says his inspiration for the menu “is linked up with the story”.
“For example, there’s a god of uncultivated food, like a foraging god, so I got into ingredient ideas around that. One of the chefs I know in another restaurant went out foraging and I asked him to get me a few things. He got some kawakawa, cress, some baby onion weeds. A whole bunch of stuff that our ancestors ate.”
On the weaving together of Māori and Pasifika elements, a key part of the Takurua initiative, Frost says: “I agree with Tausani’s vision. I know we [Pasifika people] have our space. But from what I’ve seen recently, Polynesian artists are expanding their space, and likewise for Māori. And in that expansion we’re collaborating more. Before there was almost a tall poppy thing going on between us.”
The feeling that we’re in another Māori cultural renaissance is difficult to suppress, what with the Māori Party’s recent stand for wearing traditional garb in parliament, for example, and the wildly successful Toi Tū Toi Ora at Auckland Art Gallery. Like Takurua, that show finessed a representation of Indigenous ontologies by way of a uniquely Māori genesis story. While that show was offensively overdue (our last show of contemporary Māori art was roughly 20 years ago), to say nothing of its many other fraught aspects, it was a loud and visceral provocation.
In the same vein, Takurua: Battle of the Brothers springboards its theatre from a medley of Māori and Pasifika motifs, focusing on the clash between deities in the furnace of creation itself. In Toi Tū Toi Ora, the entire gallery space was set up in successive chapters, each given to the varying dimensions of creation — from darkness to light and everything in between. And like Toi Tū Toi Ora, Simei-Papali’s vision is not without certain artistic licences.
Without giving too much away, Simei-Papali relays in a hushed voice how he had to explain a potentially dicey move to his performers.
“In the show, we have a god of colonisation,” he says. A demon god, obviously, and one that he believes needs slaying.
“Colonisation can’t be beat unless we beat it in ourselves,” he says. He said much the same to his actors and dancers, who were initially reluctant to give voice to that series of events which were apocalyptic to the Indigenous peoples of New Zealand and the Pacific.
That company of performers, the Ura Tabu Pacific Dance Company, aren’t at all against subverting the palatable, however. Company director Charlene Tedrow says Ura Tabu have always explored the lesser-seen aspects of Pacific culture and history.
“The name Ura Tabu is Cook Island for dance,” says Tedrow, “and also a play on tapu or taboo, on things that are hidden and forbidden.
“We have three main facets; one is our community focus where we work with schools and women; the second is our gigging, where we get booked for different events; and the third is theatre, which is kind of where we specialise. It’s where we get to explore the darker side of our culture. It’s not all rainbows!”
This shared incentive of taking ownership of one’s identity rather than waiting for a approval, is undoubtedly what makes Simei-Papali and Ura Tabu such good collaborators.
“Though officially ‘chorus’, we are much more,” says Tedrow. “When we enter the Takurua space we are respectfully challenging each other all the time. For example, the story is mostly about male gods and men, but when we’re in there, Tausani knows we’re Papatūānuku – I’m looking after the feminine space and challenging the inherently masculine ideas and gender divide.”
They both confess to more than a little mutual negotiation, but ultimately Tedrow and Simei-Papali are on the same page.
“When he first introduced the idea we weren’t so sure. Especially combining food and dance. I was like, dance is what we do and we need to keep it separate. But he said no, everything needs to be integrated. Now I see it and I get it.
“Often when we do go to resorts we go and watch these beautiful theatrical plays and then we come out and eat macaroni and cheese, and fried chicken, so there’s a disconnect with what is actually going on in the islands with food and entertainment. [Takurua] has an agenda of bringing more of an integrated approach, and I think it’s great.”
Refusing to accept a strict segregation between Māori and Pacific elements, Tausani argues that both parties should push back on a system of strategic disempowerment.
“It was difficult trying to get both Māori and Pasifika on board because I said I wanted to meld it. I explained that it’s meant to be poetic, that it wouldn’t feel right if it wasn’t art.
“When I dreamt the play I looked at Māori and Pacific people and I saw this division, and for me it was classic Pākehā design. The old divide and conquer. So I wanted the play to be about uniting, using the fact that we share the same ancestors. Then we can take that extra step against colonisation together.”
Takurua: Battle of the Brothers runs July 16 & 17, July 23 & 24 2021 at Aotea Centre, Auckland.
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