Black Ties – Feature

Whether you believe in the institution of marriage (or not) the commonly held belief is that the imminent union of two souls is intended to be a celebration of love and family – where the emphasis is (or should be) on the couple and their bright future.

It’s a strangely enduring fib (or love just makes you ridiculously gullible) because everyone knows that big weddings are actually for families to show their true colours. There’s the banshee mother-of-the-groom, the reprimanding father-of-the-bride, the wise Uncle – and of course, all the cuzzies with uninvited opinions galore.

But if you haven’t had a chance to experience an Indigenous wedding (especially one bringing two different First Nation families together) then the next best thing would be to RSVP to the decade’s landmark collaborations in trans-Tasman theatre history – BLACK TIES.

Judging by the rave reviews in Sydney, this collaboration between Victoria’s state theatre company, ILBIJERRI, and Auckland’s Te Rēhia theatre, promises New Zealand a rollicking good time.

However, before you head to the show at either the NZ Festival of the Arts in Wellington or the Auckland Arts Festival this March – it’s worth understanding just why this production is going to be epic.

The show itself…

It’s family drama at its best.

Hera (Tuakoi Ohia) who is Māori, and Kane (Mark Coles Smith) who is Aboriginal, have fallen in love. Of course, their respective mothers can’t abide the thought that their beloved offspring might marry someone who is outside their respective Indigenous communities and be trotted off to a foreign land. What follows is the expected clash of cultures as both parties do their best to welcome their potential in-laws, whilst still keeping a sharp and critical eye on who’s doing what.

But it’s a tad more than that.

What makes BLACK TIES standout is that the story is never in relation to Māori vs. Pākeha or blakfulla vs. whitefulla. Written by Tainui Tukiwaho with Torres Strait Islander, John Harvey, it’s an in-depth conversation on stage symptomatic of deeper changes – not just for Indigenous theatre and its makers, but for New Zealand and Australia too.

Tukiwaho, who also acts as the gregarious father-of-the-bride, reflects on the journey.

“Over the past five years, we have been fortunate to have been in a position to build relationships with different First Nation peoples’ performing arts organisations, including Rachael Maza from ILBIJERRI. Such exchanges are brilliant because they manifest in getting together and actually creating a work.”

The kaupapa for both the Kiwi and Aussie whānau has been simple.

“We wanted to make a show for our uncles and aunties, for our elders and our children – and that has been our compass through nearly two years of development.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Rachael Maza, Artistic Director of ILBIJERRI Theatre and co-director of the show. As the daughters of the late Bob Maza (co-founder of the Nindethana Theatre with Jack Charles) both Rachael and her sister Lisa (who plays mother-of-the-groom) have been immersed in the activism and politics of Aboriginal theatre since they were children.

However, even with such a wealth of experience, according to the renowned Australian director, the experience of working with Te Rēhia was a game-changing phenomenon.

She says,

“ILBIJERRI has undertaken many collaborations but never with another First Nations company – I’ve learnt so much from working alongside and watching how Te Rēhia work. Both our companies have been exploring what constitutes ‘how we work’ and that’s essential to our process because it’s embedded with our values and protocols.”

It’s a similar feeling for Te Rēhia producer Amber Curreen, who despite having the mammoth task of bringing this production to life, hasn’t let anything squelch her passion.

I get excited listening to our people respond to the story, hearing different sections of Māori and blackfulla audiences cracking up at different parts of the play, and seeing people’s faces light up,” she says.

A quiet pause follows before she adds,

“This experience is a first for our cast and crew – and that’s revolutionary.”

“Never before have we brought so many Indigenous artists to make story together – and looking around the room at our circles (that mark the beginning and end of each day) – I’m reminded how transformative this experience is for us all. “

The enormity of the task

For both Indigenous arts companies, it was ‘easy’ on a number of levels. Primarily this was due to a shared valued system that included honouring elders and children; and an unwavering commitment to create a large festival-scale work.

However, no collaboration is free of challenges and BLACK TIES was no exception. Under a tight time-frame both companies needed to explore new ways of collaboration and where necessary, make changes to streamline the process.

“In the past, both companies have often made smaller-scale touring works,” explains Curreen, “but this was an opportunity to create something large and ingenious – and it required us to explore what collaboration looked like for both whānau.”

Whilst it may seem obvious, Māori and Aboriginal communities (while sharing many similarities as Indigenous cousins across the Tasman) are very different.

Australia still has no Treaty (a point made repeatedly throughout the production) and there are also very different battles (and at different stages) that are still responding to the need for sovereignty and self-determination.

Trojan-horsing our politics into the classic wedding comedy

For the makers of BLACK TIES it wasn’t just overcoming the simple, and occasionally frustrating demands of logistics and practicalities, but the rather active challenge of constantly decolonizing both space and self.

In doing so, the sweet family favourite rom-com ends up concealing a very special kind of Trojan Horse.

“Bringing together multiple writers across the Tasman and dealing with timezones wasn’t easy, says Tukiwaho, “but it was more about finding the right tone for a music filled comedy that speaks to casual and institutionalised racism – and the systems that continue to breed that racism both in Aotearoa and Australia.”

The real win for the creators was in successfully making a complex work that cleverly layered the politics of First Nations challenges into a rib-tickling comedy.

“We’ve smuggled in a socio-political commentary on First Nation experiences through intelligent humour” says Curreen, “and what’s better is that we know the audiences who have come together – to laugh, cry, sing along and have a big party in our theatre – they totally get that.”

But BLACK TIES doesn’t stand on its own.

It comes as part of a changing and growing industry and acknowledges its place as a notable collaboration bringing Māori and Aboriginal Theatre makers. Both communities have had long histories (much longer than the Pākeha words that been ascribed to them have) and to give context to the change that’s taking place in 2020 other Māori practitioners have joined in the larger kōrero on ‘Māori Theatre’.

But what does the term mean today?

A veteran of Māori theatre and film, Briar Grace-Smith (Nga Pou Wahine, Purapurawhetu, The Strength of Water) has been working round the clock on her latest film, but she took time to respond to this question. She says,

“I grew up in Māori theatre, it was whānau to me, it nurtured and challenged me. It gave us young practitioners a place where we felt safe to tell our stories – which weren’t like most we’d seen on mainstream stages – and also, a chance to explore my own voice.”

Like many of the other Indigenous practitioners, Grace-Smith rebels against the idea that Māori theatre is ‘new’ and emphasizes that:

“Māori theatre has been around since we’ve been around. We have always been people who use performance to strengthen the power of our words (and teachings) and for me, it simply means stories told by us, in our own way.”

Actor, playwright and director Miriama McDowell is also confident that the understanding around what determines ‘Māori’ theatre will continue to evolve, especially as people set aside expectations of fulfilling pre-determined theatrical genres – the majority that have been defined by euro-centric ideas.

“For me Māori theatre is when I feel most at ease as a practitioner,” she says. “It’s when tikanga shapes and holds the way we work and for me it’s much more about the way we work than the work itself or the people involved.”

These ideas, again not new, continue to challenge the expectation of what Māori theatre (or in fact any kind of Indigenous theatre) should be. Especially as a committment to tikanga goes hand-in-hand with the stories themselves.

Māori stories – to the moon and beyond!

Many playwrights today are still looking for support for the idea that Māori can write, well, whatever they damn well like.

Aroha Awarau (Luncheon, Officer 27) whose play Provocation opens next week as part of Pride Festival, sums it up:

“Just because we are writers who are Māori doesn’t mean that we are only capable of writing about issues that are often associated with us – such as the appalling statistics around domestic violence or incarceration.”

His concerns also raise further questions:

“I’m afraid when people in the industry identify a play as “Māori theatre”, it ghettoizes our work and forces us to tick boxes like ‘Is it in te reo Māori? Is it about child abuse? Does it end in a haka?’ If the key creatives (writer, director, producer etc) are Māori then that’s ‘Maori Theatre’ – even if its set in space!”

Creating liberating spaces (and systems) for different stories

The pressing need for venues where such work and thinking can flourish is also a current concern. Tukiwaho and Curreen, often fondly referred to the ‘working parents’ for a number of Māori practitioners, set up Te Pou as the Auckland home for Māori theatre. Playwright and writer Annette Morehu (Temperance) attests to the need of having such a platform.

“Over the past six years, Māori theatre makers have found a safe space to create and produce quality theatre with Māori narratives – and that’s thanks to Te Pou. Many of us have been able to obtain the training and experience that’s helped us be recognised (and subsequently employed) in mainstream theatre.”

“I don’t think think this would have been possible without a place like Te Pou where we, and our stories, are readily welcomed.”

Actor and playwright Daedae Tekoronga-Waka (Call Girl) is equally vocal about creating such spaces, and like Morehu has also been active at Te Pou. She says:

In an industry that already has a certain system, I’d like to see that system slowly broken down because it isn’t working for us.”

“Although we are making waves, we still have a lot more work to do and hopefully, we can stop box ticking and go back to the ART! Holding the mirror up to society and saying HEY look! This is us!”

Show me the money!

But change without a substantial influx of dosh? Or a drastic change in the system? Playwright Albert Belz (Astroman, Yours Truly) is sceptical until we can see some of the loot from the funding war chest.

“My current concern is the huge lack of funding on this side of the Tasman,” he says.

“We are definitely the poor cousin and aroha doesn’t pay the bills anymore so it would be nice to match the cost of making an Indigenous colab theatre with Australia on a 50/50 basis – which isn’t currently the case.”

Tokenism and its limited trade routes

Belz’s point about dollars (and the lack thereof) is also inextricably linked to the development of work and how money dictates what gets made. It’s difficult, as Awarau explains, when you “have to prove how ‘Māori’ is your work”.

“If it doesn’t tick the boxes you are forced to apply in a more competitive general round, so many Māori writers are disadvantaged because their work is not deemed Māori enough.”

He adds, “I believe those boundaries create token aspects in our work. Māori writers are not given the freedom to express themselves fully because funding from our main government body is cut off.”

But despite the ongoing conversation of funding, the absence of sustainable support hasn’t deterred our Māori creatives nor their determination to keep making work.

For that reason, amongst many others, BLACK TIES is a landmark endeavour that inspires artists to continue building bridges – knowing that when making such work the stakes are always higher.

There is so much to do at home so why would you leave?

This is a theme that resurrects itself multiple times during the show – irrespective of which side of the Tasman we’re on. It speaks to a fiery sentiment that as the world seems to be collapsing on itself – taking care of the priorities at home must come before anything else.

Nevertheless, the power of collective change can’t be underestimated.

When travelling to Australia in 2017 for the Pop-Up Globe’s Much Ado about Nothing McDowell was stunned by the cumulative power of Indigenous theatre makers.

“There’s an undeniable connection between us. We know how precious we each are and also, we’re so different to each other as well.”

“The way we tell stories about ourselves reflects where we are as a people and how far we’ve evolved. The way Māori were performing work about Māori 20 years ago is very different to how we tell our stories now.”

McDowell also worked on the Auckland development season of BLACK TIES and says the differences between the writers (and the actors) on how they wanted to represent their people was fascinating.

“There is so much potential for learning when you get Indigenous people collaborating. We have much to teach each other and there is a quality of deep listening that comes with this kind of Indigenous collaboration.”

For Morehu, her aspirations also springboard from the changes that BLACK TIES is creating. She’s interested in seeing “Māori and Indigenous writers developing authentic and original theatre so that we can see ourselves in our nation’s stories, and then insert those stories into the global narrative”.

Her thoughts are also quite practical.

“We often complain that we don’t have enough of our stories out there, and the only way that is going to happen is if more of us take up the pen/laptop and be brave enough to tell them.”

“Particularly us women. It is a well-known fact that the most under-told story is that of the coloured woman – if we aren’t going to tell our own stories, then who will?”

Wāhine Toa leading the way

Although BLACK TIES is written by men, Maza’s leadership and Curreen’s stewardship have led this versatile waka into a new chapter in theatre history.

For Curreen, Māori Theatre is led by Māori and made in a way that “will whakamana te ao Māori and is primarily for a Māori audience.”

It also carries a lot of meaning.

“Māori theatre has been a protest, a vehicle for change, a discussion, a way for urban Māori to discover their whakapapa. It is a means to educate, entertain and affirm our people and our stories.”

Ultimately, she says, “it is a unique contemporary convergence that cannot be created elsewhere in the world.

From her perspective of decades of activism work through theatre, Maza is caught in a moment where she finds herself confronted with an ongoing personal reflection: ‘What am I doing?’

I look around at the world and I feel like we are all in some sort of ‘psychosis of denial’,” she says.

“We see rainforests burning that have never burnt, we hear about the ever growing list of animals soon to be extinct; we feel the rising heat, the electricity prices, the growing racially fuelled tensions in the street, on the TV –  AND YET… we just keep doing what we’ve always been doing??? Are we insane?”

“I guess, yes, we are. That’s why we make art. To help us survive.”

Making art, changing lives and creating new experiences –

for everyone across the Tasman.

BLACK TIES is unequivocally wedding drama fodder. Heart-warming and feel-good. Like a Marmite and cheese toasty with a good cuppa tea.

But it also been a huge life-changing experience – and perhaps no greater than for our young Māori lead, Tuakoi Ohia and her co-stars.

“I feel like I’ve won the lottery!” she says, “I’ve learnt a lot from our Aboriginal whānau, especially Uncle Jack Charles. The Australians have generously shared stories of their people – and its helped me reflect on our experiences as Māori.

For Ohia, she was surprised at how easily the Trans-Tasman cousins bonded and the instant alliance made.

“I’ve done a lot of collaborations with new people in kapa haka and music and I was surprised how on the first day we just clicked as a whānau.”

She was also full of admiration for her ‘fake hubby’ Mark Coles Smith.

“He’s an amazing actor and I’ve had to step up my skills,” she says. “As Indigenous peoples we are more than capable of producing excellent work and I’m excited to bring BLACK TIES home to Aotearoa with such a great team.”

Like the other creatives involved and the many practitioners who spoke about the changes taking place, the rise of Indigenous theatre and Indigenous collaborations is gaining momentum – and fast.

For Curreen and Tukiwaho, BLACK TIES heralds a radical transition.

“Led by us and for us, we can make very real changes for our people through the arts”, they say.

“We’re headed to a place of greater international unity and at the same time greater focus on regional arts development – like a tree with branches that stretches far and wide we will always have deep roots into our whenua.”

Having already won audiences with its high aesthetic values, nuanced humour and cultural specificity, BLACK TIES is a start to a new decade – a decade hopefully, that promises different ways of doing for Māori and other Indigenous whānau.