Plays and playwrights speak about and impact on the society that has nurtured them. A play called Maranga mai, by the Māori theatre group of the same name, had a major impact. First performed in 1979, Maranga mai combined the growing Māori theatre movement with the mode of collective creation. It dramatised Māori protest over land rights, and a performance at Parliament in 1980 made top headlines on national news.
Harry Dansey is thought to be the first Māori writer to have a play professionally performed and published. Te raukura: the feathers of the albatross, based on Te Whiti’s passive resistance movement, was written in 1971. Dansey said that ‘many parts of the play were written first in Maori and then recast in English.’ Some sentences remained untranslated, and at the debut production at the 1972 Auckland Festival, ‘the Maori actors, once the Maori sentences began flowing from their lips, could seldom resist the temptation of carrying on in Maori – departures from the script which were to me occasions of sheer delight.’ 1
First Māori playwrights
Māori dramas by Māori playwrights stepped into the world of light in the 1970s. Harry Dansey’s Te raukura (1972) dramatised the struggles of the prophets Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi in 19th-century Taranaki. Poet Hone Tuwhare’s In the wilderness without a hat (1975) and Death of the land (1977) by Rowley Habib (later Rore Hapipi) followed.
The 1980s and 1990s
New Māori playwrights made the greatest impact on New Zealand theatre in the 1980s, and subsequently flourished in the 1990s. Significant plays were written by Rawiri Paratene (Saturday morning, 1980), Selwyn Muru (The gospel according to Taane, 1983), Riwia Brown (Roimata, 1988), Roma Potiki and the company He Ara Hou (Whatungarongaro, 1990), Bruce Stewart (Broken arse, 1990), Rena Owen (Daddy’s girl, 1991), John Broughton (Michael James Manaia, 1991) and Apirana Taylor (Whaea Kairau, 1995).
Depot and Taki Rua
The Depot Theatre, which focused on New Zealand work, played an important role in staging many of these plays. In 1990, New Zealand’s sesquicentennial, The Depot focused its programme on Māori theatre and was renamed Taki Rua. Taki Rua was dedicated to producing new Māori work. After it ceased to function as a venue, it remained the country’s main production house for Māori plays.
From this movement two playwrights, Hone Kouka and Briar Grace-Smith, have established deserved prominence. Kouka’s trilogy of plays Waiora (1996), Home fires (1998) and The prophet (2005) constitutes a landmark achievement. Grace-Smith has written in a variety of modes, from the magic realism of Purapurawhetu (1997) to the thriller genre employed in When sun and moon collide (published in 2007).
Māori on the world stage
Plays can also represent New Zealand to the world. Te Haumihiata Mason’s Toroihi rāua ko Kahira, directed by Rachel House, adapted Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida into classical Māori and a pre-colonial Māori world. It opened a season of versions of all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays on the 2012 anniversary of the playwright’s birthday at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London. Mason and House’s reworking stood at the centre of world drama.
A whole new aspect of playmaking was added to New Zealand theatre when companies and playwrights from the Pacific community began to present original plays on the professional stage in the 1990s. Two companies, Pacific Theatre in Auckland under the direction of Justine Simei-Barton, and Pacific Underground in Christchurch, were instrumental in initiating this during the 1990s.
Oscar Kightley began writing with Pacific Underground, collaborating with Simon Small on Fresh off the boat (1993), David Fane on A frigate bird sings (1996) and Erolia Ifopo on Romeo and Tusi (1997). In 1998 male members of Pacific Underground and Pacific Theatre formed a comedy company called the Naked Samoans. It was out of this grouping that the award-winning television cartoon comedy bro’Town was created.
Significant plays from Pacific women writers include Makerita Urale’s Frangipani perfume (1998), Dianna Fuemana’s portrayal of working-class life in West Auckland, The packer (2003), and Nina Nawalowalo’s Masi (2012).
Victor Rodger’s plays Sons (1995) and My name is Gary Cooper (2007) have had several productions. Of all Pacific writers, Toa Fraser (Bare, 1998, and No. 2, 1999) has had the greatest impact in New Zealand while also being toured overseas. No. 2 was made into a feature film, also directed by Fraser.
In 2014 recent and promising Māori and Pacific playwrights included Albert Belz, Miria George, Whiti Hereaka, Vela Manusaute, Suli Moa, Mitch Tawhi Thomas and Louise Tu’u.