Walking Together into a Dark Space: A Review of Little Black Bitch
Jason Te Mete’s Adam-Award-winning play combines waiata, dance and dialogue to take its audience to a dark place. New Volumes critic George Fenwick reviews.
I’ve always found metaphor to be one of the most affecting ways to consider mental health in storytelling. It’s a knotty and difficult subject, and we live in a country not very good at talking about it. Packaged in metaphor, an access point is created. I’ll never forget Essie Davis conquering her depression in The Babadook, taming it on a diet of worms. I was transfixed in Annihilation when Natalie Portman stared hers in the face, danced with it, and destroyed it. In both films, the metaphor acts like tilted mirror; it slants or magnifies our viewpoint, and guides us towards a new understanding of subject matter which, by nature of its impact on the mind, can otherwise feel impossible to comprehend.
In Jason Te Mete’s Little Black Bitch, we’re introduced to a small community rocked by the suicide of teenager Matiu. Performed by an ensemble cast from Manukau Institute of Technology, the play is staged simply, with a central column dividing the action into two areas. Opening with Matiu’s tangi, the story is told through a mixture of waiata, dance and dialogue, with the former providing some of its most mesmerising moments. Scenes including the whole cast, such as those set in the classroom, crowd the stage a bit too tightly; I’d love to see what Little Black Bitch could do with a larger space. Nonetheless, every waiata and dance sequence comes alive with the cast’s shared energy, creating theatrical moments that far exceed the sum of their parts.
Every waiata and dance sequence comes alive with the cast’s shared energy, creating theatrical moments that far exceed the sum of their parts.
We learn that Matiu left no note – or rather, people say his pet dog, Toto, ran off with it when she escaped. Rangi, our protagonist and one of Matiu’s best friends, is wrestling with feelings of confusion and guilt over Matiu’s death. Those feelings begin to consume him once Toto shows up in his room. He feels the need to care for the lost pup – but the “little black bitch” is soon controlling him in increasingly unpleasant ways. Toto begins to sabotage Rangi’s relationships by possessing his loved ones, such as his Aunty Marie and best friend George, in visions, using their bodies and mouths to spouts his insecurities back at him: that it’s his fault that Matiu died, and his own mother before that.
Toto thus becomes Te Mete’s metaphor to explore Rangi’s own depression and how exposure to suicide can exacerbate the illness. The metaphor, like most, suffers under too much scrutiny– I wondered at one point if the play was implying depression is a malignant entity that leaves one body and latches itself onto a new host. But Little Black Bitch is so thoughtful, and its characters so full-bodied, that the confusion is easily forgotten (and without spoiling too much, Te Mete’s script neatly addresses that question at the end). Essentially, Toto exists in Rangi’s mind, and as such, is the source and agent of Rangi’s pain.
Te Mete’s characters feel like real people in a way that’s difficult to perfect on stage.
One of the most admirable things about Little Black Bitch is the way Te Mete’s characters feel like real people in a way that’s difficult to perfect on stage. Many scenes are also packed with lovely comedic beats, a difficult feat for a play about such a serious topic, but made to lookadmirably easy by its cast. Toto is performed with relentless commitment by Camille-Jayne Atkins, who spends almost the entire play on all fours making dog noises, and yet somehow manages to command respect and attention in the role.
Marie, played with heart by Rosalind Tui, brings a warm maternal energy as Rangi’s caregiver; she’s an instantly recognisable character that the audience is onside with immediately. George Tuipulotu as George mostly provides comic relief, but he also acts as a voice for some of society’s more taboo reactions to suicide – such as that the victim was ‘selfish’ for ending their life. Details like this are indicative of Te Mete’s empathetic intuition of how suicide impacts small communities.
[Fidelium Simanu’s] third-act monologue, in which he describes the last time he saw Matiu, is one of the most emotional scenes of theatre I’ve seen lately. Simanu communicates rage, grief, confusion and guilt all in one breathtaking passage.
Fidelium Simanu, who plays Matiu’s dad, Tommy, portrays a grieving young father with immense tenderness – you can almost see the battle between overwhelming emotion and masculine rigidity taking place in his eyes. His third-act monologue, in which he describes the last time he saw Matiu, is one of the most emotional scenes of theatre I’ve seen lately. Simanu communicates rage, grief, confusion and guilt all in one breathtaking passage. The audience was stunned.
Rangihawe Kahu is equally compelling as Rangi. As his anger and agitated behaviour isolates him from his loved ones, he starts experiencing visitations from wild animals significant to Māori mythology, such as the wheke (octopus). These dream sequences offer a chance for members of the ensemble to shine through Vivian Hosking-Aue’s fluid choreography, but the scenes themselves feel disjointed from the main plot, and add significantly to Little Black Bitch’s already long runtime, which weakens its final impact. However, Te Mete’s wider concept about Rangi’sjourney and its relation to Māori mythology is an impressive storytelling feat. As Rangi slips further under Toto’s control, his life descends into rage – the earth shakes, the sky bleeds, and Rangitoto awakens within him. One can’t help but marvel at the way the pieces fall into place; it’s potent storytelling that leaves the audience aching for Rangi.
Te Mete’s script takes a shocking turn in its final act, which I’m still mulling over as I write this review. I’m going to spoil it, so please stop reading here if you wish to avoid.
Rangi attempts suicide, but is rescued at the eleventh hour by George, Marie and Tommy. It’s a disturbing scene, and I’m not sure the story necessitated Rangi getting to that point. Despite his decline, he (and the audience) learn new lessons about mental health with each dreamlike visitation, such as the need to speak from the heart, and the importance of seeking out a kaitiaki (guardian) to help him control Toto. Through these scenes, I felt the story had already made powerful statements about the impact of depression on young people, particularly Māori youth,well before the final act. But at the same time, perhaps a story in which Rangi simply learns to talk about his feelings and is therefore cured of his depression would have been too clean an ending to adequately convey the severity of the real-life issue.
Though we’re with Rangi every step of the way, this last upsetting scene still comes as a shock, and yet it also feels lacking in resolution for Rangi – like that afforded to Tommy in his cathartic monologue. Early in Little Black Bitch, the Māori health model Te Wheke, which links mind, body, spirit, whānauand the physical world, is explained to Rangi by his teacher, with particular weight given to Whatumanawa – “the open and healthy expression of emotion”. Rangi is encouraged to kōrero about his emotions and not keep things bottled up, but he doesn’t achieve this by the end of the story, and the earlier reference to the impact of his mother’s suicide on his upbringing is not returned to. It doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of Te Mete’s storytelling, but it feels like a missed piece of crucial character development for Rangi, particularly after his attempt on his own life.
Stories about mental illness can easily stray into unsettling grey areas, where historic pain and volatile emotions are too close for comfort for artist and audience alike.
But what Te Mete gets right in his final scene – and it’s another impressive piece of plot tessellation – is that Rangi wakes up to realise his kaitiaki have been in front of him the whole time: Marie, George and Tommy, who had each appeared in ‘cameo’ as an animal in his dreams. They are frank with Rangi; though they have managed to banish Toto for now, she’ll come back one day. But he won’t be alone when she does.
It should be acknowledged that Te Mete ensures this support is passed on to the audience. He opens the play with a direct address, warning of the distressing material to come, and acknowledges the counsellor present for those who feel triggered by the piece. There’s also counselling available for audiences after the fact via MIT. Stories about mental illness can easily stray into unsettling grey areas, where historic pain and volatile emotions are too close for comfort for artist and audience alike. But Te Mete and his creative team honour the trust placed in them by the audience and walk together with us into a dark space, ensuring we keep the light at the end of the tunnel within our line of sight.
Little Black Bitch runs from 2–6 July at Basement Theatre. Tickets available here.
This piece is presented as part of our New Volumes critical writing partnership with Basement Theatre. Basement Theatre covers the costs of paying our writers while we retain all editorial control. You can read more about the programme here.