Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Brave 'New World': Asian Voices in the Theatre of Aotearoa

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Brave 'New World': Asian Voices in the Theatre of Aotearoa

Article excerpt

Aotearoa/New Zealand is by definition a bicultural nation under the Treaty of Waitangi, signed by the Crown and representative Maori chiefs in 1840, and cemented by government policy in recent years. Bicultural theatre has had strong representation on the stage from both partners, Maori and Pakeha, walking separately and together.1 However, the last ten years have seen the emergence of what might be deemed a multicultural presence in the theatre, which challenges that bicultural viewpoint.2 Of particular note in this regard is the significant blossoming of new work by a dozen or more Pacific Island/Polynesian playwrights resident in New Zealand, led by Oscar Kightley (Samoa) and Toa Fraser (Fiji), whose impact has been particularly felt in Wellington and Auckland.3 Plays such as Think of a Garden, Bare, Fresh Off the Boat, Dawn Raids, Romeo and Tusi, Niu Sila, Frangipani Perfume and VuIa engage in a variety of ways with what it means to have a foot in two worlds, and are creating distinctive theatre forms of their own which draw on their specific cultural heritages. Pacific Island theatre is arguably the most vigorous and dynamic developing force in contemporary New Zealand theatre, but since 1996 there are other new voices to be heard which are becoming increasingly vociferous.5

Actor-writers Lynda Chanwai-Earle (a fourth generation New Zealander of Chinese and New Zealand parentage) and Jacob Rajan (Malaysian-born to Indian parents) form the vanguard of newly-emerging Asian voices which offer a further theatrical challenge to the bicultural foundation of Aotearoa. As Chanwai-Earle expresses it: 'I want to throw back in the audience's faces their own preconceptions taken from the media. New Zealand TV has constructed its own narrative ... it has generalized Asian communities and lumped them into one . . . We have to examine our very peculiar xenophobia about the Kiwi identity revolving around a white European-based culture or being proud to be bi-cultural.'6

Prior to 1996, the primary presence of Asian voices on stage or on film was filtered through Pakeha eyes. For example, George Leitch's sensation melodrama The Land of the Moa (1895), while focussing on the interaction of Pakeha and Maori characters amidst spectacular scenery, includes a Chinese cook amongst its ship crew, whose sole function is to appear in a fight scene to have his pigtail cut off and be kicked offstage.7 Leon Narbey's film Illustrious Energy (1988) follows the story of two impoverished Chinese gold miners in 1895 Otago who dream of returning home after twelve years.8 Hailed as 'the first New Zealand-based exploration of the classical Japanese Noh theatre', Rakiura by Eileen Philipp was staged in Auckland in Januaryl994.9 It was based on a true incident in which a Japanese woman entering New Zealand in a short-term visitor's visa was discovered some months later living on Stewart Island/Rakiura. As the New Zealand Listener review of the production indicates, 'her discovery provides the impetus for the journey: between one island and another, through real time and dream time, and past and present'. The central character was performed by the play's director John Davies, who had studied Noh in Japan, and who carved the two masks used on stage to distinguish the transformations of the character.

Perhaps most notable in the theatre was Vincent O'Sullivan's Shuriken (1983). O'Sullivan takes as his starting point the historical 1942 internment of Japanese prisoners of war in a POW camp at Featherston, and the notorious incident in which about fifty of the prisoners were killed by their New Zealand guards.10 However, his intention clearly lies beyond a debate on the clash between East and West. The play uses its historical position to comment on tensions between Maori and Pakeha, suggesting, according to Sebastian Black, that 'the Maori may have had, and may still have, more in common with these Japanese prisoners than they ever did with their Pakeha mates. …

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