From Mob to Whānau: A Review of Black Ties

Theatre

17.03.2020

From Mob to Whānau: A Review of Black Ties

In a play that navigates tensions between Indigenous Australian and Māori families, Tia Reihana finds pain and aroha beneath the surface. 

Most stories are best told by those for whom they belong to. This is particularly the case for Indigenous communities. The mediums are vast for such storytelling and even more poignant when occurring in the arts, and the too often Western-framed discourses of theatre. In this relationship slightly hidden under smile, song, spoken word and dance, realistic undertones of cultural knowledge, stereotypes can be openly navigated in satirical moments on stage.

In Black Ties a production from Australia’s ILBIJERRI, and New Zealand’s Te Rēhia theatre companies, we follow the story of Kane and Hera who are in love and planning to marry. The play, by John Harvey and Tainui Tukiwaho and directed by Tukiwaho and Rachael Maza, starts as a mostly familiar expression of young love, yet becomes a culturally specific complex kōrero towards the altar. Black Ties brings together First Nation Australian and Iwi Māori narratives where the labour of love engages the labour of colonisation. 

Amongst the ongoing transitions of visual backdrops that incorporate picturesque landscapes, live behind the scene action between family members and music, we watch as audience. When we return after intermission, the theatre has been reset for a wedding reception. We are seated at dining tables complete with wedding decor, kai and place cards thanking us for our attendance. Ceremony pictures are displayed as the chaos of family narratives are unravelled in the formalities of wedding speeches and the actors’ immediate interactions with the audience. 

Behind the potentially shallow storyline of boy-meets-girl, exists deepened and critical points of departure for which to contemplate ourselves.

The script is a creative collage where families, perhaps reminiscent of our own, negotiate the cultural tohu, protocols, appropriation, and generational trauma of each other. Behind the potentially shallow storyline of boy-meets-girl exists deepened and critical points of departure for which to contemplate ourselves: the expectations that we may have of our family members and how these determine our roles and responsibilities; the prejudice we have towards others; and the uncertainty that can exist when trying to belong to distinct communities, are underlying threads of intent.

As audience we also move from Australia to Aotearoa, country to whenua, whakapapa to kinship, mob to whānau, and to whare and marae. I laugh, cringe, wonder, but mostly celebrate the union of Indigeneity in which an often-familiar narrative is presented. I love that the play speaks into our distinct settings as tangata whenua, and I love that it does so in an equitable co-creation with Indigenous Australia. 

At the setting of young love, we look into our similarities through our distinct differences. At the end both families concede to each other through a song's lyrics that speak of love and acceptance. When the bride Hera's younger sister disrupts the fighting between families onstage with her singing, she shares a message of reconciliation and acceptance. Black ties are formed in these differences and unions, resulting in a return to ‘aroha’. They present opportunities to acknowledge and validate each other.  

I love that the play speaks into our distinct settings as tangata whenua, and I love that it does so in an equitable co-creation with Indigenous Australia.

The cast are very good at bringing a depth of experience that resonates in their portrayal of character. They make distinct connections where the issues explored are tangible and endearing. Formidable relationships are formed with the audience whilst potentially disrupting what we might also hold valuable in our own family, whānau, and kinship values. A performance held together by the mana of Uncle Jack Charles who plays elder Mick Bunurong, we are entertained and educated in the familiar, painful and joyful.

Black Ties gives us a wedding, a union, a tying, together of families. It gently threads our everyday and as my friend states, quietly shows how “the pain is never too far under the surface”. As we leave the show, and in contemplation of her words, I would have loved that my husband and whānau had come along. They too would have enjoyed the production’s gentle ruffle of life that we so often, as tangata whenua, experience. It’s an idea that Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens from all over the world can connect with.

Black Ties was part of the Auckland Arts Festival, running from 11-15 March. 

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