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Katie Wolfe on Writing ‘The Haka Party Incident’

Ngā Toi Māori, Performance, Theatre

The Haka Party Incident resurrects the eventful day in Auckland in 1979 when a group of University of Auckland engineering students rehearsing their annual tradition of a mock haka were challenged by the activist group, He Taua. The incident, which lasted three minutes, sent ripples through the nation and changed race relations forever.

To create this production, award-winning filmmaker and theatre director Katie Wolfe (Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Toa Rangatira) recorded the recollections of many of the key figures involved in the incident, who are vividly represented on stage by a terrifically talented cast.

The result is a riveting theatre-documentary where live drama and kapa haka combine to powerful effect.

Why did you decide to write this, Katie?

I was commissioned by the Auckland Theatre Company to write a new piece – and I’d been sitting on this idea for a few years. I wanted to do a verbatim theatre piece and basically it all came together, very much a case of right time, right place.

It’s described as a verbatim theatre piece – does that mean the script is taken entirely from verbatim reports and interviews?

Yes -but different types – so there’s the interviews I did with people who were there, and people associated with the incident, but I also have taken information from court records and a transcript for an interview from the student magazine Craccum. So, there’s three different records, if you like.

That’s quite a bit of research!

Yes, it was!

Tell me why the story appealed to you on a personal level? Does it say a lot about the intersection between Māori and Pakeha cultures?

That’s a great question – I think for two reasons. It was hugely significant because it was a moment of confrontation between Māori and Pākeha and the fact it had been swept under the carpet and that was interesting to me. Secondly, in my work I like to explore the meeting between Māori and Pākeha, and this seemed universal in terms of how we as two parties to the Treaty keep moving forward together.

On a personal level did it also speak to your own whakapapa as being both Māori and Pakeha?

It did. I have a Māori mother and Pākeha father, and I live that every day in terms of how I am perceived and how I present myself in the world, so that intersection has always been an important question for myself. The play is about creating language around that and exploring how we can talk about these things. A lot of people feel nervous, or confused or even ashamed to talk about this so I hope the play can facilitate normalising language around this.

Does it also bring into focus the intersection between traditional Pākeha theatre and Māori performance? 

Absolutely! The play is a mix of verbatim documentary theatre and kapa haka. It’s structed like a kapa haka bracket, so there’s another intersection there.  So, there are these two art forms in the play and to me, they are both natural. It’s also interesting that if you take haka for example, the words of the haka and the wāiata in the show, they themselves are quotes that have been passed down through generations – so the haka is kind of a verbatim itself. The words are the māngai  – the voices – which have been passed down just like the verbatim interviews.

What relevance do you think it has for audiences of today?

It keeps getting more bloody relevant, sadly.

But my son wrote the haka in the play – he went right through kura kaupapa  and he’s now 18 and a very confident young man and I look at him and his generation and think “We’re going to be alright.”

The play has a theme of memory – and memory is often unreliable – how did you incorporate that aspect into the play?

In terms of the engineers who were there at the incident, when they spoke to me about it – some of them had never spoken about it before, and so they were activating a memory that they hadn’t formed words or even emotions around – so they are extraordinary interviews. Memory is intrinsic in understanding the context of what people are saying – and what was fascinating to me was the scene in the play where you hear the activists and engineers describing what actually happened and both parties describe the events in exactly the same way. It’s fascinating.

I see the play carries a warning for audiences –  warning that the play includes offensive views, some bad language, institutional racism, cultural appropriation and historical examples of how haka and Te Reo Māori were incorrectly used and performed in the past. I think it’s a great idea and arguably more important than warning about smoking or sex scenes…

We as arts practitioners have to be very mindful about putting warnings on our material – I understand it, because there are times when I tell this story of what happened in the Haka Party Incident to young people, and they are so shocked by the disrespect of treating the haka in such a way. The idea that people would get dressed up as a Māori person and take the piss out of the haka  – they can’t believe it.

I’m of the generation where this was normal and so it’s not shocking to me, but we do need to be mindful of sensitive content that can be triggering for some people.

The play is on at The Court Theatre – do you have a connection here?

I performed at The Court in my first year out of drama school – I did Hamlet there in the early 90s under the direction of Elric Hooper. I love revisiting a theatre, I’m very nostalgic like that, so that’s my main connection to Ōtautahi. I haven’t actually spent a lot of time in Christchurch since the earthquakes and I’m really looking forward to it.

The Haka Party Incident won the Adam NZ Play Award for Best Play by a Māori Playwright
Dean Parker Adaptation for Non-Fiction Award and will play at The Court Theatre from 27 October to 11 November. 

Get your tickets here.





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