Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Positioning Alterity: Multi-Ethnic Identities in Contemporary New Zealand Drama

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Positioning Alterity: Multi-Ethnic Identities in Contemporary New Zealand Drama

Article excerpt

TAKING MY CUE FROM STUART HALL'S DEFINITION OF IDENTITIES as always in process, a matter of positioning rather than essence, I propose to focus on contemporary multi-ethnic drama in New Zealand from a comparatisi vantage point which will, I hope, fruitfully illuminate this emerging literary phenomenon. Multi-ethnic diversity has increasingly characterized the New Zealand stage, particularly at the turn of the millennium, in a way that forces us to redefine the very concept of a monolithic national literature. A comparative approach to the study of this body of work highlights the myriad of ways in which these multi-ethnic playwrights seek to negotiate otherness in the postcolonial context of contemporary New Zealand. While the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s were defined by the playwriting of significant Päkehä1 writers like Bruce Mason, Greg McGee, and Robert Lord, to cite but a few examples, the last three decades of the twentieth century have witnessed the growth of a vast array of multicultural voices on the New Zealand stage, reflecting the increasingly pluri-ethnic set-up of a traditionally bicultural, Päkehä and Maori, culture.

My cross-cultural vantage point offers an opportunity for a detailed analysis of these renegotiations of otherness in four recent and significant dramatic works: Albert Belz's Awhi Tapu (2003), an instance of new Maori drama; Lynda Chanwai-Earle's Foh-Särn (2000), which provides an illustration of how the Chinese Other is currently represented in New Zealand drama; and Toa Fraser' s No. 2 (1999) and Dianna Fuemana's Mapaki (1999) which offer examples of the growing presence of Pacific Islands immigrants in New Zealand drama, as these playwrights originate respectively from Fiji and SamoaNuie.2 Drawing on Stuart Hall's theories, my examination explores the many positionings adopted by these emerging dramatists in their attempts to perform their Native and 'ethnic' identities. Indeed, as Stuart Hall convincingly argues, identities should not be regarded as fixed but, rather, as entities in a perpetual process of reconfiguration:

We should think [...] of identity as a 'production' which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside representation [...]. We all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and a culture which is specific. What we say is always 'in context', positioned.

The concept of 'positioning', according to the critic, aptly captures this evanescence of always beleaguered identities, enabling us to take into account the provisional 'world vision' of any marginalized subject in a hegemonic society.

My essay deals with thematic as well as aesthetic elements, as both are indissolubly linked in the expression of these authors' multi-ethnic and Native heritage. In this regard, it is crucial to acknowledge that, like Päkehä artists, Native and 'ethnic' writers feel the need to explore territory lying beyond traditional Western aesthetic boundaries. Their experimental quests often recall Homi Bhabha's notion of a 'third space' or hybrid form, one that incorporates elements from Western and non- Western dramaturgies. This 'third' position underlines these writers' uncomfortable "in-betweenness."4 This desire to experiment freely with dramatic form echoes that of the First Nations Canadian playwright Drew Hayden Taylor. The latter has repeatedly voiced his opposition to the widespread concept that Native plays should necessarily stage a trickster.5 As Alan Filewood has rightly pointed out, Native - and, by extension, 'ethnic' - authenticity exists primarily as nostalgia for a lost innocence in the gaze of Western critics; it is a construct that betrays a re-inscription of hegemonic patterns of thought.6 My case studies will underline the futility of any critical attempt at homogenizing the production of these emerging playwrights.

Further, as I shall demonstrate, some if not all of the works examined in this essay articulate a dramatic aesthetic akin to magical realism. …

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