Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, September 17, 1999

Maori contemplate the
‘waters of life’ in ‘Waiora’


Bullet On stage: "Waiora"
Bullet Date: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow
Bullet Place: Leeward Community College Theatre
Bullet Tickets: $20 adults, $15 students, senior citizens and active duty military
Bullet Call: 455-0385

By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin


A day at the beach becomes the picnic from Hell, and a young woman's 18th birthday party provides the context for a look at Maori life in mid-20th century New Zealand, as playwright Hone Kouka tells a bitter tale of cultural alienation and cross-cultural miscommunication in "Waiora."

Written and produced to include lengthy sections of Maori dialogue and dance, this is a fascinating and challenging theatrical experience.

The longer John/Hone (Rawiri Paratene) and his family remain away from their home, Waiora (literally "waters of life"), the weaker and more powerless they become. They've been away for more than a year and the family is disintegrating. The eldest son left home without a word after John punched him out. John now tyrannizes adopted younger son BoyBoy (Jason Te Kare).

Amelia/Amiria (Waimihi Hotere) isn't happy with the mill job John arranged for her. Younger daughter Rongo (Nancy Brunning) is apparently losing the will to live so far away from home.

Rongo and her mother, Sue/Wai Te Atatu (Tina Cook) are able to see Maori spirits. It may be clear to Maori speakers whether chorus members Stephen Butterworth, Grace Hoet, Helen Pearse-Otene and Antonio Te Maioha represent specific family ancestors or old-time Maori in general, but that distinction isn't established clearly in the English dialogue.

The conflicts experienced by the family members are intensified by the presence of two representatives of the white power structure. Steve Campbell (Mick Rose) is the third generation New Zealander who owns the mill where John and Amelia work; one of the ironies of the story is that the Campbell family has deeper roots in the immediate area than John and his family do.

Teacher Louise Stones (Amanda Rees) has befriended Sue and BoyBoy. She comes from one of the wealthiest old white New Zealander families on South Island.

The story takes place in 1965. Steve and Louise are liberals by the standards of New Zealand in the mid-'60s. Steve intervened when John was denied access to the mill social club and arranged the job for Amelia. Louise also seems to treat the Maori as equals. Kouka skillfully reveals both Steve and Louise to be well-intentioned but unconsciously instilled with the values and attitudes of the dominant white cultural system.

Whites won't work for a Maori foreman so the most Steve feels able to do is give John a bonus for a job well done. Louise, too, proves to be a victim of her upbringing.

Even a discussion of rugby is tainted with obliviously insensitive comments about the greater efficiency/worth of white organization and planning compared to traditional Maori culture.

Rees and Rose stand out with excellent portrayals of well-meaning but clumsy outsiders. Paratene and Cook give powerful performances as the parents trying simultaneously to hold a family together and maintain a sense of identity somewhere between two conflicting cultures. Hotere and Te Kare likewise do great work as the embattled children. Hotere is a fine comedienne. Te Kare will break your heart.

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