Playwright Miria George talks to Leonie Hayden about her new satire of Māori ‘one-percenters’, and challenging assumptions about what Māori art should be.
The Vultures is a curious departure from most Māori theatre I’ve seen. It’s not explicitly about post-colonial disenfranchisement or violence, although it can be argued these underpin all Māori existence.
It’s about a family of wealthy, entitled Māori that have been raised in the glow of privilege. When that privilege is threatened and the family must make a decision about their land, they are prepared to destroy everything to get what they want.
It’s a barbed deconstruction of the culture of iwi governance. Pantograph Punch called it “a satire of Māori one-percenters, the generation of tribal executives and chairs who opened their arms to market capitalism and damn the consequences for their tangata whenua.”
The play debuted at Kia Mau festival in Wellington last year. It’s been given a new, older cast and opens in Auckland at Q Theatre Rangatira next week.
I interrupted rehearsals to sit down with its creator, poet and playwright Miria George (Te Arawa, Ngāti Awa, Rarotonga, Atiu), to discuss her extraordinary journey and some of the key ingredients that went into The Vultures.
Nō hea koe?
I grew up in a little village called Horohoro, about 20 kilometres south of Rotorua. My mother’s family are Ngāti Awa and Te Arawa. I grew up on a dairy farm, on mana whenua. Our farm was one of the first pieces of Māori land to go into Apirana Ngata’s farm trading scheme. It still runs as a dairy farm today, for better or for worse in regards to its impact on the land. I grew up five minutes away from my marae. The primary school where my brother, sister and I went was established by my great-grandfather.
My dad’s family are from the Cook Islands, they had moved to Rotorua which is where my mum and dad met. We moved to Rarotonga when I was three years old and my mum and dad helped my nana and papa build a house there. Every year, sometimes two times a year they would do the trip back to Rarotonga. So in many ways I grew up in two different villages. I’m just a country kid, really. It was a cool way to grow up, even though I hated it at the time. I always wanted for something else. It’s taken into my 30s to realise that I should have appreciated it.
Interesting, complicated adults are the product of interesting, complicated childhoods, ne?
Absolutely! My New Zealand Māori family were all about education. While I had the opportunity to grow up on the whenua in the middle of nowhere, which I’m really thankful for now, my kuia was really visionary. All of the girls in my family were sent overseas to finish high school. I went to Costa Rica, another cousin went to Brazil and my sister went to Russia. I also went to Fairfield College in Hamilton and Western Heights in Rotorua. Western Heights was very conservative, it was all volleyball and rugby, but they had an amazing art department which is why my mum sent us there. My dad is a painter and a carver and my older brother is a visual artist too.
I mean, hated school but it was pretty straightforward.
Most creative people do.
I have a real suspicion of institutions. Even when I went to Victoria [University], I had and still have a suspicion of academia.
Even with a Masters? Or because you have a Masters?
It’s authority. I think as one of the younger siblings in my family, it’s this deeply entrenched thing. And I think it’s a really healthy thing, in any society. It’s why The Vultures exists.
Even going back to do my Masters, it’s just a really Pākehā environment. There was a small group of us non-Pākehā who all hung out, we’re still friends now 16 years later. You have to be vigilant. The ease of prejudice within institutions is still ongoing. It’s about trying to inspire other young ones who are not of the dominant culture to keep putting up their hand and saying ‘I’ve got a problem with that’. They’ll often be the only one in the class.
It’s tiring being the one that always points that stuff out.
It’s tiring and it’s ongoing.
Within the creative and theatre industries, do you still feel like you’re putting your hand up and saying ‘that’s not right’?
All the way through. All of my work has looked at families or leadership, or both. All the way through there have been barriers. My second play And What Remains was written during the hīkoi against the Foreshore and Seabed legislation. So that play was written in 2005 and set in 2010 and it proposed an Aotearoa in a not-too-distant future where all wāhine Māori have been sterilised. At the time we had the hīkoi, the Kahui twins had been murdered… if you read the paper or listened to talkback, you would hear the most violent, anti-Māori language. So I wrote this play and I worked with this feminist dramaturg, like a senior script consultant, and she pushed me to stop writing the play. Let it go, write about pre-contact Māori, write about your ancestors. Don’t write about now.
I had enough support from senior Māori theatre practitioners to know that she was trying to shut down the kōrero. It’s been ongoing instances of that, to censor, to try and perpetuate invisibility of wāhine Māori and va’ine Pasifika in our industry. Which is why when Waru comes along, it’s massive and it’s so important for the film industry. We don’t have enough of those events.
What are the main themes of The Vultures to you? Whānau? Capitalism?
I really wanted to have a conversation about greed and soullessness and the conservatism of our people. Not a lot of people know that or will acknowledge that. It’s about time we saw those realities and those perspectives on stage. A lot of the time in New Zealand theatre and sometimes in our own Māori theatre, Māori characters represented are from very working class backgrounds, or it’s a kitchen sink drama, so I wanted to talk about people who have wealth and privilege and the power to make decisions that affect many other Māori. It’s healthy that we question them too.
I’m intrigued by Māori forms of ‘community capitalism’, which is what we’ve been handed back as part of our Treaty settlements, this hybrid of values. Our rūnanga invest cash and then hope it can translate into cultural values. Is this something you’re criticising or something that can be figured out?
I believe it’s something that can be figured out. When I was studying at Victoria I was lucky enough to work at my iwi rūnanga, Te Rūnanga O Ngāti Awa, at the tail end of their Treaty settlement process – a 25-year process. I was there for about three years. My cousins and my brother worked there as well. I understood how this could create opportunity for our people, but that was also countered by people demanding their cut. It can go either way, there are so many variables. I feel like iwi Māori have such a massive role in terms of whanaungatanga, vs individualism. How can we maintain a balance?
They were heading in the right direction though, with the establishment of Awanuiarangi, a new wānanga. I believed in the leadership. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask questions.
The first time we staged The Vultures in Wellington a couple of the journalists who covered it didn’t really believe that there were Māori that come from wealth.
What is this alternate universe!
I know! It’s about a family that can stand in the Māori world and also in the Pākehā world, they’re educated. It’s not an identity struggle story or a historical tragedy or a post-colonial anything. It’s just a story of power and control… if you’ve lost your soul, can you get it back?
It’s satire, it’s comedy. It’s a good ride.
It was described as “savagely funny” by a couple of reviewers in Wellington. Is it a humour that comes from parodying New Zealand culture or is it the characters themselves that are having a go at each other?
The characters go at each other, and because they come from the upper echelons they can throw barbs at anyone. They’re entitled. When you sit above the law, legality is just a matter of making the right phone call. They are their own worst enemies because they want for nothing. Except for in the end, when they lose… a lot.
Any reservations about an Auckland audience versus a Wellington audience?
Wellington’s the home of contemporary Māori theatre so the city’s used to us. Not to say Auckland isn’t used to it because I know there’s a lot of stuff happening up here. Especially this year, it’s been so exciting to see all of the Māori companies presenting up here. So I’m super keen to see how it’s gonna go.
Do you think it will make waves?
I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Did you have any feedback from Māori when you staged it in Wellington?
We had some come and they were like, oh we know that family. They live across the bay from us. I know that aunty.
We all know those families, but we don’t get that opportunity to see that side of te ao Māori on stage. So I’m excited about that.
The Vultures stars Nicola Kawana, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Ani-Piki Tuari & Erina Daniels, and opens October 18 at Q Theatre. Buy tickets.
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