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‘I’m not a victim, yo!’ Playwright Maraea Rakuraku on the power of Māori theatre

Maraea Rakuraku is an award-winning playwright whose latest work is being presented in Te Pou’s Kōanga Festival in September. Sam Brooks talked to her about history, playwriting and cultural commentary.

Kōanga Festival is a two and a half week festival (September 1 – 17) presented by Te Pou, Auckland’s Home of Māori Theatre, consisting of performances, showcases, readings and social events. The festival will be held in Te Pou’s New Lynn theatre, which opened in 2015 and has hosted a range of events and productions since.

As part of Kāanga Festival, Te Pou has funding from Creative New Zealand to develop new works by four Māori playwrights: Aroha Awarau, Maraea Rakuraku, Krystal Lee Brown and Jason Te Mete. They’ll be presented in two double-bill readings, on Wednesday 6th and Wednesday 13th (Rakuraku’s play Te Papakāinga is being read on the 13th).

Rakuraku’s plays have gained both rave reviews and awards. Her second play Tan-Knee won the Adam Award at the 2016 Playwriting Awards in Wellington; her third, Te Papakāinga, which is the one being workshopped for Kōanga Festival, won Best Māori Playwright at the same awards in 2017. She is also a fierce cultural commentator, writing for both Theatreview and The Pantograph Punch.

Jason Te Mete, Maraea Rakuraku, Aroha Awarau and Krystal Lee-Brown. Photo Credit: Bob Scott

Sam Brooks: So here’s the most simple question in the world, but also obviously not so simple: What’s the play that you’re developing in the Kōanga Festival?

Maraea Rakuraku: The play is called Te Papakāinga. I wanted to look at how if it takes a village to raise a child, does it take a village, through silence, through grief, through various reasons, to kill one? And I wanted to look at how complicated we can be when we are paralysed.

And I wanted a big work, so there’s a cast of 22, including a horse.

Of course, a horse.

Because I wanted the audience to feel the village, and its goings on. I wanted the audience to really feel that they were part of the village.

Absolutely.

Whether that’s emotionally, whether that’s physically, culturally. I wanted it to be kind of jarring like that.

Te Papakāinga plays with the things around colonisation, and the names of places. So colonisation was a violent act. All through New Zealand we had names for places and [then] there was settlement, so other names got put on upon those places. The village in the play has got all these names that the locals know, but then other names have been put upon them, so one of the streets is called Captain James Cook Parade and the other one is called the Carl Volkner Street. Carl Volkner was a priest. I’m Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu, and up near Tūhoe, we border up against Whakatōhea which is near Ōpōtiki, and during the period of the Scorched Earth policy Carl Volkner was a spy for the crown and in the history books he’s not presented that way.

Really? How is he presented?

Oh, he’s just presented as a priest who was civilising all these crazy Māori up the road.

That’s awful.

That’s New Zealand, Sam. It’s our history. It’s our shared history, and until we really start owning that as two people and peoples we are going to constantly have the rub that causes a bit of friction. It constantly places me in the position of a victim, and Pākehā as the colonisers. So until we actually start having a really honest conversation about those things we’re constantly thrust into those positions and I don’t want to be! It’s like fuck you, I’m not a victim yo! There’s a constant guilt, and that kind of rub plays out all the time.

So with Te Papakāinga, I wanted to talk to those things. The work follows the impact that this baby’s death has upon the village and the underlying things that are going on in the village, all the violence but all the love too. It’s in response to the silencing that happens in communities around the death of kids.

What kind of silencing is that?

Māori kids aren’t the only kids who get who die violently, it’s just we’re the only ones who get reported consistently. In terms of the rates, the rates of Pākehā and Asian kids are relatively high compared to us, it’s just ours get reported. So this work kind of started as a response to that but also because I wanted to see… you know I come from a village from Waimana which is in Tūhoe, and I know what it’s like to be the voice who is asking the questions or the one who is saying, “It’s pretty fucked what just happened there, you know?”

So I wanted to look at how we can be silenced, how in silencing there’s an action and how that can have impacts, how it can have impacts generationally.

How so?

So say, for instance, my iwi Tūhoe dealt with the Scorched Earth policy, which was about burning us out – starving us and burning us out of the land. So that’s an act of violence, and the various land claims that we’ve signed and sealed and completed have been a way of acknowledging that. In that way we’re able to go okay, that happened, we’ve acknowledged it, we can move on.

Right.


But what happens if nothing’s acknowledged? What happens in Te Papakāinga is that something has happened, it’s not acknowledged and it has an impact upon everyone in the village. And it lingers because there’s been no acknowledgment.

So why write this – what’s the fire that makes this necessary?

I mean I don’t know what it’s like for you but I have all these stories in me but also stories I want to facilitate the telling of –

Yes yes 100 percent!

I have so many, and it’s like, this was my masters thesis but this story sat with me for a really long time. And you know sometimes you’ve got to write that story, to kind of really get at it.

Absolutely.

I wanted to write something big, and I wanted to make it relevant to how I was feeling – how angered I am by the media, how angered I am that we’re constantly vilified and we do live in fucking big beautiful dysfunctional fucking communities but we try to find ways of engaging that are functioning and we try to find healing.

So for me and this is only my third play, and I was thinking about it recently, and I’m no guru, but it’s like you’re healing a hole in yourself. When you write it’s like you’re trying to heal yourself whole. 

Yeah, I think it’s very healing to write something honest, and to have it read, to be heard, is so fucking healing. 
For better or worse, I think theatre is an artform that fills the space with people, they listen and they actually hear you.

And you want them to be moved. It was when I saw my first play [The Prospect] in rehearsal I realised it. I cried because I saw the scene – that wasn’t related to my life at all – I saw it and I realised the connection from that scene to an event in my life. And I cried and went to the toilet going, “Oh my god that’s that time that blah blah blah happened,” and I went back and watched the rest of rehearsal and I said, “Jesus, I didn’t even know I was writing that.”

Everybody is saying it’s like I cracked my heart open and gave people a look, and I honestly did not realise that until I’d seen that first work, and I realised that you make yourself so vulnerable.

And I told one of my mates that story, she smiled and said, “That’s where the power is.” And she was so right, and I don’t know if I’m even able to control that process.

No, totally. It just happens completely through some kind of spirit or another. It feels like you’re channelling something.

Absolutely agree.

Maraea Rakuraku. Photo Credit: Bob Scott

So to pivot to something a bit larger, what value do you feel your work has to the community – being heard and being seen onstage?

Well, when my family have been to things of mine, they feel such pride because – and I’m sure you know this too, because you review as well, we review works and it’s so refreshing when you’re reviewing work that isn’t set in Auckland or Wellington, but they’re set in places that you know like Dunedin or like Jamie McCaskill’s stuff from Thames, it’s so nice because you end up hearing a completely different vernacular.

Absolutely.

So my family who come to my work – and every now and then I put little things in there and I get characters to say other characters’ names that are like their nieces or their kids or uncles that we’ve loved – and one of my cousins came to see a reading of my work and she got up at the end and said, “It is so humbling hearing our place names in these spaces.”

Fuck.

And that’s exactly what it is, and what I want. These spaces are for us, they’re for us too, not just them. They’re for us. You know when you’re writing that you’re creating space, it’s not just about you, even though it can feel like it. And it’s a privilege, it’s humbling, it’s fucking humbling and I just feel so proud that I get to do it.

Even though I shit my pants a bit like, “Did that shit even make sense? Am I being true?”

But that’s what you do, Sam. That’s what I do.

And how do you bring all that to your commentary? I find your work so fiercely and uniquely articulate, it’s so very aware of the space the art takes up for both artist and consumer, and also the space you are both taking up and creating as a commentator.

But how do you actually do that? It’s a lot to consider in your work, and I think you do it really well.

I think I understand what you’re asking. When I do that work, I have to be really aware that I’m not the only voice, I’m creating the space, but I can’t get so far up my ass that I think that I’m the only one and I don’t want to buy into the idea of ‘this is what a Māori thing is’ when looking at work. That’s not true, we’re not just that, we’re all over it, we’re everything.

And every time I’ve never felt true to myself, I’ve suffered. So I just try to always be true to myself and to work with intent, and to be kind as much as I can. I mean fuck, I can be a bastard like the rest of them, right.

Like all of us!

I try, I do try, and I just try and put all of that intent into my work. And to make my time matter, not to be self-indulgent – that’s for me, I guess when you’ve got a 20-year-old crafting their stories and writing what’s relevant to them, ka pai, it’s relevant to them, not relevant to me. I mean, you’re doing your growing up onstage, I’ve done a lot of my growing up. I mean, I’m still growing craft.

It’s a really new thing, I’m finding I’m getting into positions where people are wanting a Māori reviewer, and that’s fine but the thing is that’s not actually what they’re asking for. They’re asking for a reviewer who is able to recognise things Māori and then give an articulate Māori view on it – and that’s very different from someone who has whakapaka that is Māori.

I feel like time is the only thing that is impossible to get back – and I think choosing how we spend our time as playwrights or as commentators is so hugely valuable. I read your commentary and I get a sense that you value the time put into this particular piece of art, by the artists, by the people making it. That’s a very valuable thing and I’m not sure many commentators think about it.

But you know, I don’t ever want to get into a position where people feel like they can’t ever challenge me because, you know what I think, that would be one of the worst things – that people get so scared and it’s like, “Don’t get scared, bring it!”

I think it comes down to the polite New Zealand thing, Sam.

Yes, it does!

They don’t want to say it, and it’s like, “Say it, you’re entitled to your views!” It’s okay to say that you might not agree, I won’t die!

You can book tickets to the Whakarongo Mai play readings here and check out the entire Kōanga Festival programme here.


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