Te Puhi, written by Cian Elyse Waiti, delves deep into family politics against the background of an iconic moment in our history: the crowning of the first Maori beauty queen in New Zealand.
It’s Rotorua in the early 1960s and Hineruhi Johnson (Roimata Fox) has been prepping her baby sister, Te Puhi (Taupunakohe Tocker) for the Miss New Zealand pageant. Eager to please her big sis and help out the whanau the younger Johnson sister puts in the hard yards to achieve the perfect mix of “not too Maori” and “not too Pakeha” – and successfully walks away with the title.
Putting aside her own nervousness at leaving home and the family business (Maori cultural performances for tourists), Te Puhi leaves the pa to head overseas accompanied only by her incorrigible agent Judith (Sophie Lindsay). However, one month becomes much longer than anticipated and the drama climaxes when Te Puhi returns to confront the changes that have taken place in her long absence.
It’s a moving and powerful story that blends two genres, the touristy version of “authentic Maori performing arts” and the realism of an Ibsen production. Occasionally these genres don’t work as well as they could and the blocking often distracts from the main action.
Nevertheless, under Te Kohe Tuhaka’s direction, there are excellent performances from the cast, including Eds Eramiha who plays Te Puhi’s love interest, Rakei Johnson, and Antonio Te Maioha, the girls’ uncle and leader of the concert group.
Jane Hakaraia’s lighting is, as usual, exquisite and Sam Clavis’ sound design also works extremely well offering audiences a memorable, if nostalgic, soundtrack from the early 60s. The members of the Te Marama concert group also deserve to be mentioned for their wonderful performance – both as a concert group and also in upholding the kaupapa of the production.
Waiti’s narrative might seem to focus on Maori beauty queens but it’s important to note that this production offers much more: a deep and interrogative examination into the relationships between two sisters; the tension of “performing culture” in a world that stacks personal ambition against community advancement and perhaps, most powerfully, that the notion “I made it” is not exclusively a personal achievement but one that carries whanau, friends and on this occasion, all Maori, proudly forward.