Everyday Aroha: A Review of Pakaru
Winner of the prestigious Adam New Zealand Play Award, Mitch Tawhi Thomas’s poignant tragedy about a hard-working, hilarious whānau, premieres at this year’s Kia Mau Festival. Josephine Parsnip reviews.
Focussing on one small family in Aotearoa, Pakaru tells a story of love and loss with well-rounded, realistic characters. Jess (played by Claire Waldron) is a solo mum dealing with the trials and tribulations of raising teenagers in our fast paced, ever-connected world. Conversely, at times Pakaru reminds the audience of how isolated we remain in this modern age, by having the performers never leave the stage but simply stand to one side looking at their phone, face lit up, present but absent. We follow as the hard-working Jess invites Tahi (played by Rob Ringiao-Lloyd) in to her home and life. Their new relationship is delightful and full of cute family moments. Touching on many of our country’s deep issues, like poverty and addiction, I found Pakaru to mirror real-life: it is both hilarious and heart-wrenching.
They live unglamorous lives; fighting for every dollar from WINZ, working a crappy job and all squashed together in a small house. Yet, they live with aroha and a feistiness that is perfectly captured.
Jess and Tahi are unsung heroes, doing their best in a difficult situation. They are not tropes, they are all over Aotearoa, but they are not usually in theatre. It felt special to see them and their story on stage. They live unglamorous lives; fighting for every dollar from WINZ, working a crappy job and all squashed together in a small house. Yet, they live with aroha and a feistiness that is perfectly captured. Written and directed by Mitch Tawhi Thomas (Ngāti Maniapoto), Pakaru draws particular inspiration from the teenagers he has taught as a secondary school teacher and their whānau. There were many funny one-liners, whole scenes that had the audience giggling throughout. I think we were just so tickled to see ourselves and our whānau so accurately portrayed on stage.
Both Shayla and Brayden (played magnificently by the Dekkers-Reihana siblings) are so realistic: I cried when they hurt, I laughed when they made a dumbass teenage joke. They are adorable and regrettably sensitive, reacting before thinking, as teenagers often do. The performances were so polished that it didn’t feel like opening night at all.
The set design by Sean Coyle is dynamic and unusual, with pits in the stage that are used in several ways. Coyle’s work is in perfect concert with Matasila Freshwater’s AV design, together they present the online world and other pressures from outside the family. At times, incoming phone messages are projected around the set, building a momentum that feels quite inescapable. Another time, Brayden’s teacher is represented by a projected giant mouth telling him off. I found the domestic clutter, rubbish bags and clothes next to the sparse staging unpredictable and exciting where the actors simply reached into the piles to retrieve or replace their props. The use of phones in this play is particularly interesting; like real life they were used constantly and became a mirror, a gateway, a wall, a bridge – trolls and all.
With so many young Māori untethered from one side of themselves, like a waka floating in the bay, we run the risk of losing them at the next high tide.
Tawhi Thomas has shone a light on a very particular part of New Zealand that I had never properly considered: a Pākeha mother raising Māori children. Though I, myself, was raised by a Pākeha solo mother, and many of my Māori friends were also raised by Pākeha solo mothers, I had never stopped to contemplate this specific situation. It is a combination that has deep ramifications for Te Ao Māori and tamariki Māori. Whakapapa is vital in Te Ao Māori and it is helpful to know your parents. With so many young Māori untethered from one side of themselves, like a waka floating in the bay, we run the risk of losing them at the next high tide. Pakaru never explicitly talks of race, it is enjoyable and easy-going in the sense that it never feels political or didactic. However, if you’ve enough energy to look, there are many deep and common issues being presented: the incarceration rates of Māori men, the mental health statistics of our rangatahi, the social welfare system, the effects of expensive housing, and the prevalence of alcohol abuse to name a few.
It is not surprising that Tawhi Thomas won the Adam NZ Best Play Award for this poignant tragedy about our hard-working, hilarious whānau. The writing is clever and funny and its story is true for too many New Zealanders.
Produced by Hāpai Productions
Starring Claire Waldron, Rob Ringiao-Lloyd, Joe Dekkers-Reihana and Neena Dekkers-Reihana
Feature image: photo by Julie Zhu
This piece is presented as part of a partnership with Kia Mau Festival. They cover the costs of paying our writers while we retain all editorial control.