I came to the University of Auckland as a Māori. It wasn’t until halfway through my second year of tertiary education that I learned of the ‘Haka party incident’, a tale of Māori taking back their culture from the hands of Pākehā who had mangled it. Director Katie Wolfe (Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Mutunga) offers up a revised version of her 2017 play encircling this same event. The incident was hidden inside New Zealand’s casual racism closet because it challenged this country’s perception of itself as fair and tolerant. This is an idea that Wolfe made a point of addressing during the show’s promotion and on opening night; “I didn’t understand why it had been wiped from our nation’s memory.” Nevertheless, this play serves as a key educational tool (thanks to a failing NZ education system), and vividly documents a forgotten episode in New Zealand’s history that highlights the continual struggle of Māori.
The play begins in 1979 with the introduction of He Taua (The War Party), a collection of young, educated, revolutionary, and radical Māori. The representative members of He Taua explain their feelings of frustration, anger, and grievance towards the state of their culture. These grievances include the ongoing effects of colonialism and the misuse of Māori taonga. This is highlighted by depicting events, such as the 1973 All Blacks’ deformed imitation of the Haka. These grievances go back to 1941 when Māori had no career avenues and further back to the arrival of Pākehā. Richard Te Are (Ngāti Kahungunu Ki Heretaunga and Tūhoe) explores this with his performance as Ben Dalton, discussing how Māori are doomed to “become labourers or criminals”, leading to many Māori joining the army to fight the war.
He Taua had seen their culture stifled under the pressure of Pākehā colonialism and Māori urbanisation. Continued passive, non-violent protest and filing of grievance cases through the proper channels had failed, further frustrating the young Māori. The final inciting incident was the 1979 capping celebrations of engineering students, who engaged in mock Haka while wearing grass skirts and displaying racist words on their bodies. In the show, the climax occurs when He Taua tell their tale of confrontation with the engineers. The fallout of the incident shows the brutality and hypocrisy of New Zealand police and the court system, which minimises punishment for Pākehā and maximises it against Māori. He Taua were beaten and withheld representation. This serves as one of the show’s highlights as the cast play out a tense and disturbing scene of police brutality that had become the norm for Māori. The use of the vast stage during this scene is particularly stunning. The police treatment of He Taua was brutal, but the one thing that mattered the most to them came to fruition. The Haka party was never performed again.
The dialogue is the first thing notable about the show. Katie Wolfe implements the use of verbatim theatre, with the dialogue gathered from those who were present. It is not history dramatised, but history realised. This speaks to the cast’s ability as they all offer dynamic performances, often acting out multiple characters in succession. The cast represents members of He Taua in a way that could’ve only been done with heavy research and input from members who were there that day. Audible gasps of respect and delight were heard as the audience heard the words of their friends and idols, verbatim. Each piece of enlivened dialogue also resonates clearly with contemporary questions and discussions about the same issues. Māori land, racism, police brutality and many other social problems are still relevant today and fill the stage in this show. The familiar dialogue resonates deeply, especially with those more knowledgeable and conscious of these events. This includes members of He Taua, who were present on opening night. This play sheds light on how we can all become change-makers and fight for what’s right. Although it is heavily prosed, the context of social change enhances the meaning to a poetic level.
The best moment arises when 1979 Craccum editor, David Merritt, interviews Ben Dalton. They discuss the media portrayal of He Taua as gang members and the many social frustrations that culminated in their actions on May 1st, 1979. Ben asserts that colonial violence is not only physical but mental. Other highlights include the numerous proud Haka the cast members performed and the vocal performances during the musical numbers, including the performance John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. It is also a subtextual demonstration of how modern Haka is a key part of taking back our culture and expressing Māori identity.
The play points to our history, permitting us to ruminate on similar present social problems. It’s an educational experience for the uninitiated—a tale of revolution and accomplishment. Letters with the words of He Taua’s frustrations filed through the proper channels had not made the difference they wanted to see. He Taua were left to respond with the language of the oppressor: violence. He Taua were forced to turn to it as non-violence meant the repeated postponement of a solution to Pākehā racism. Malcolm X said, “We are non-violent with people who are non-violent with us, but we are violent with those who are violent with us.” We can count ourselves lucky that this mahi was done before our time here as university students and as Māori. He Taua laid a foundation for Māori culture here at UoA. It is our turn to continue this mahi. We continue to fight against the powers of colonialism and racism for the future of our people.
“He aha te mea nui o te ao?
What is the most important thing in the world?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.”