August: Osage County is considered an American classic; a drama that offers a quintessential glimpse into the heartland of American family life as three daughters return to the family home to mourn the passing of their father and come to terms with unresolved histories. Considered one of the country’s greatest stories, this dark comedy by Tracey Letts heralded a wave of stories that turned inwards, speaking back to the land and the people.
HĪKOI has the potential to be to Aotearoa what August is to Americans. That’s not to say neither have their flaws, but HĪKOI has a subtle power that is distinctly unique. Unlike August, which is a distinctly singular white narrative, HĪKOI gives voice to Māori to speak back to Māori. This isn’t a sugar coated educational history lesson for the Pākeha; it is an unapologetic testimony to a history that is and has been actively excluded from the mainstream narrative of this country’s past.
It begins with five kids on a bus. There’s Janey-Girl (Aroha White) who’s the oldest and takes it upon herself to the be the boss, even if she does have a twin, the tough and hardened May (Kura Forrester), who manages to keep things together when tempers are flying between her siblings. Then there’s Joe (Manuel Solomon), the man of the family, whose survival has come from dealing with his four sisters, the other two being Pearl (Ngakopa Volkering), who is always on edge, and Bubba (Amanda Noblett), the youngest, who is often away with the fairies.
This lot are on their way to find their mum and both literally and metaphorically; it is their journey (and ours too as an audience) to find out why the initially shy and retiring Nellie (Kali Kopae) who loved her husband (Jamie McCaskill) and children would choose to place the fight for Māori land, language and rights before her own children.
The play isn’t a judgement story. But it is a winding twisting tale that sheds light on attempts of what today would be called cultural genocide. It explores the ramifications of foster care, the abuse at schools, the separation of family and the gradual brainwashing that percolated through thousands of children who were taught that to move forward the past must be forgotten.
HĪKOI is brave but it is also timely. Nancy Brunning has created characters who are recognisable, familiar and puts a story on the mainstage that talks straight up and straight out. Set against the increasing activism of the 70s and 80s, the story flashes between the past and the present. When Nellie and Charlie were young and in love, both Māori but from different worlds, Nellie’s desire to be part of the conversation and the change that was sweeping the nation increased, while Charlie’s paralysing fear forced him to play it safe.
Ultimately, five headstrong children take it into their own hands and it is a credit to Brunning’s rich and potent characters that, aside from the occasional forced dialogue, the story never tips into caricature or cliché.
A strong and dedicated ensemble, the stand-out of the night is Kura Forrester: a combination of her character’s traits and her own brilliant skills carries the story forward even with her silences. Manuel Solomon too traces the coming-of-age arc exceedingly well within the two hour time frame, giving a poignant and memorable performance.
Beneath the evocative soundscape of Mara TK and the minimalist but superbly lit (thanks to Jane Hakaria) set design by Wai Mihinui and Jaimee Warda, the story unravels, revealing the wounds and the sores left by the past.
Towards the end the narrative does seem to lose some of its momentum and veer towards the didactic, the climax fell flat and the energy seemed to dissipate as no clear resolution was reached. In its current version it is probably still a tad too long and a few of the metaphors unfortunately are overstretched but the story is nevertheless a powerful one and certain to be a remarkable highlight of the Auckland Arts Festival.
Riveting in story and direction, Nancy Brunning has certainly set the stage for a new wave of stories to be told from Aotearoa back to her people.
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