Black Ties brings together two major Indigenous theatre companies in a landmark new work. But in some important ways, as Emele Ugavule outlines, it misses the mark
Black Ties is an important first, bringing two First Nations theatre companies from across the seas together, building pathways and crafting their narratives on their terms. That’s important work, but it has to be acknowledged that with every new collaboration and relationship there will be teething stages.
The show offers a unique opportunity for non-Indigenous people to witness the complex conversations that surround intercultural relationships, and a chance for Indigenous peoples to see themselves reflected. It’s marketed as “irreverent, vibrant and hilarious”. It definitely lived up to that, but for me as a Tokelauan Fijian womxn, the production missed the mark where specificity could have deepened and honoured the complexity of conversations audiences undoubtedly will have walking out.
Co-directors Rachel Maza (Meriam Mer, Yidinji) and Tainui Tukiwaho (Te Arawa, Ngāi Tuhoe) shaped incredibly powerful and memorable performances, delivered by a huge and highly capable cast (of equal Māori and Aboriginal ancestry). As a creative, I’m excited by imagining the collaborative conversations that took place during development and rehearsal and the stones they have laid for future works and pathways.
Written by John Harvey (Saibai Island) and Tainui Tukiwaho, this world premiere – directed by commissioned by ASIA Topa and presented by Te Rēhia Theatres & Ilbijerri Theatre Company – is nothing short of huge.
I was invited to a community show as the guest of a close sis of mine. These one-off shows are generally known as an opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait community to attend theatre shows produced by First Nations companies at either a reduced cost or free of charge. They offer a safe space for community to express themselves throughout the show without judgement and for the actors to see and hear themselves reflected in the audience.
‘This battle of trauma – whose people have suffered the most at the hands of the British colony – surfaced consistently throughout both matriarchs’ storylines’
The community show ran just under three hours (almost an hour over time), including interval, which wasn’t surprising as there seemed to be a lot of silences and ad libbing as the team worked through timing issues that arose throughout the run. Given that mistakes and mishaps are expected during a preview, I did wonder – aside from the obvious reasons such as costs – why the community show was the preview and not the official opening, or any other night in the season. Our community audiences would definitely benefit from seeing the show, just like any other audience, once it’s sitting comfortably in the season run.
As this was the first community show I had attended, I was really happy to see that the majority of the audience was Aboriginal, Māori and Pasifika. I hope that Sydney Festival strongly considers offering fully subsidised community shows for free to First Nations companies (audiences had to pay $10), in the same way that MEAA members or concession card holders are able to attend an unwaged performance at mainstage theatre companies for free (usually held in the middle of the season). Ticket prices were relatively expensive, ranging from $36-$80, and unaffordable for a majority of our community members.
We meet Hera (Tuakoi Ohia*) and Kane (Mark Coles Smith, Nyikina) as they embark on the task of introducing their beloved to their families before announcing their engagement, travelling interstate and internationally to break bread – a perfect romcom formula. What follows is 150 minutes of two families attempting to reconcile their preconceived prejudices. As these families struggle to accept their children’s union, the play reveals the consequences of projected insecurities and cultural stereotypes of Māori and Aboriginal people by Māori and Aboriginal people.
Sovereignty over self and mind, over lands and protocol. This issue was raised throughout the show, anchoring itself as the main reason the mother-in-laws, Sylvia (Lana Garland *) and Ruth (Lisa Maza; Meriam Mer, Yidinji)) opposed the marriage of their children Hera and Kane and served as the main point of tension throughout the entire plot.
Treaty vs no treaty. This battle of trauma – whose people have suffered the most at the hands of the British colony – surfaced consistently throughout both matriarchs’ storylines.
Hera’s mum, Sylvia, insists that if Hera is ever to fall hapū (pregnant) she must come home to Ruatoki to raise the bub because that is the land her ancestors fought and died for their descendants to be raised on. And this is where we encounter a unique nuance in the treaty conversation that was not raised, despite ample opportunity.
Tukiwaho, being of Te Arawaand Ngāi Tūhoe descent, wrote this family into his iwi (tribe). Makes sense, because that’s what he knows. Writing from your personal perspective as an Indigenous creator is a safe and grounded position, allowing you the space to highlight differences unique to your lived experience.
This is never explicitly mentioned, although Hera’s younger sister Tama (played by Tukiwaho’s daughter, Tawhirangi Macpherson) enters her first scene wearing a Ngāi Tūhoe t-shirt. James Henry’s (Yuwaalaraay and Yorta Yorta) AV design is used to illustrate geographical location (and quirky interactions via messenger and video chat), bringing up street signs that point to Ruatoki, and we also hear their ancestral story as descendants of children of the mist delivered as neat, subtle exposition. These are all small but very important signals to Māori (and Pasifika raised in Aotearoa) about who this family is and how that will inform their behaviour throughout the play.
What’s curious is that Ngāi Tūhoe, infamously, is one of the few tribes that refused to sign The Treaty of Waitangi. They consequently suffered devastating treatment at the hands of British occupation, including confiscation of land, brutal invasions and targeting of Tūhoe leaders.
The introduction of treaty discussion into these characters’ emotional arcs highlights a common misperception. Not many people know that there were two versions of the treaty drafted and signed, Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the te reo Māori version) and The Treaty of Waitangi (the English version. They were not exact translations and not every iwi signed the treaty. To this day, Māori who have signed the treaty have lost the ability to instil and enforce tino rangatiratanga (self-sovereignty) on their terms, and are constantly subjected to Crown breaches of the treaty – most recently highlighted by the dispute over the protection of Ihumatao.
We are left to assume that although this production was a collaborative process, Kane’s family were mostly constructed by Harvey, who comes from Saibai Island in the Torres Straits and has previously worked with Ilbijerri Theatre.
Interestingly, although this family is both heavily embedded and well respected in the Melbourne Aboriginal community, most insistently through the work of Uncle Mick (played by the incredible Uncle Jack Charles; Boon Wurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung), their mob or mobs are never identified or asserted as much as Hera’s family. There is a possibility that they belong to Boon Wurrung Country, but again there are no specific hints. This leads the audience to assume a unified identity and opinion on the sovereignty front – a dangerous line to unnecessarily walk in the imaginary world.
Given Victoria’s progress on establishing the historic First Peoples’ Assembly to support treaty negotiations, presenting a point of view that all Aboriginal communities believe a treaty is what will uplift them from colonial shackles is misleading, and quietly ignores the beauty in difference of opinion.
The sweeping refusal to honour such important details in the tribe-specific history of treaty negotiations in both families feels, at first, disappointing. But when partnered with the violent language both matriarchs use to justify their anger towards their child’s choice of spouse, it becomes intentionally hurtful.
Sylvia repeatedly uses racial slurs against Kane’s family, which was incredibly uncomfortable for me. It was uncomfortable to see this mana wahine (powerful/magical woman) denigrate herself by using colonial slurs to describe Kane. It was uncomfortable to feel one of my closest sissys (who invited me to the community show as her date) begin to shrink into her chair next to me. It was uncomfortable to watch other Aboriginal audience members mutter under their breath “No, that’s gone too far now.” And to see them looking awkwardly at their hands when we heard these words for the fifth or sixth time (I had lost count by then) hurled across the stage. And it was uncomfortable when I realised that the only racial slur used in return for Hera’s family was used three quarters into the show, dismissed and turned into a joke because it was mis-used.
‘Given Victoria’s progress on establishing the historic First Peoples’ Assembly to support treaty negotiations, presenting a point of view that all Aboriginal communities believe a treaty is what will uplift them from colonial shackles is misleading, and quietly ignores the beauty in difference of opinion’
Misunderstanding exists across Indigenous cultures. To expect us to be one harmonious pan-Indigenous global community purely because we share an ongoing history of suffering at the hands of colonialism is naive.
Yes, solidarity exists: but so does misinformation and prejudice.
By bringing two families together from incredibly rich and resilient cultures, Kane and Hera gave our imaginations a chance to voice genuine conversations around the dangers of homogenisation, and an alternative to work through them rather than fight through them.
As the community show was the first audience, there were many technical aspects of the show that needed tightening up, particularly with AV cues, and a lack of clarity around the focal point for audiences when the set and consequently the staging changes dramatically in the second act.
Jacob Nash’s (Murri *) minimalist design in the first act is complemented by the huge surprise re-staging in the second. We are greeted by a bare stage with a two tiered rostra style platform stage right in the traditional proscenium arch format. A large sheet for projections in the background is painted in the same off-white marbleish rock palette as the platform. Slightly offstage, but still in clear view, is large two storey scaffolding, draped in a slightly confusing choice to represent a multitude of locations ranging from the Blue Mountains to Kane’s family apartment block rooftop.
At times this semi-permanent structure pulled focus as the actors struggled to time their entrances and exits, which was made more difficult by the black theatre curtains separating onstage/offstage areas. The second act is a complete re-staging and immersive experience, bringing the audience into the storyline through an exciting use of space and dramaturgy by making us guests at the Kane and Hera’s wedding reception. It’s glittery and colourful and extends the first act’s use of projection by introducing live camera feeds controlled by different members of the bridal party. The guests are given some small kai(food) with beautifully tiny hard rock candy in jars featuring the Aboriginal and Māori flags. It is in every way an incredibly decadent and lush design.
As the second half relies heavily on audience engagement, these running issues will no doubt iron out over the course of the national and international tour.
Often, directly after we were hit with heavy moments, we were granted comic relief in the form of Jermaine, Kane’s cousin brother, (Dion Williams; Waradjuri and Wokaman) or Shannon, Hera’s cousin sister (played by Brady Peeti; Te Ati Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, Ngāti Maniapoto).
Peeti’s portrayal of Shannon was as punchy and powerful as many of my queer Pasifika friends and fanau (family), transforming her resilience into a quick wit that, when matched with her physical strength and stature, emanated “don’t fuck with me vibes”. It’s the kind of energy you only build up after years of people doing exactly that, fucking with you, a trait I recognise in my queer Pasifika friends and fanau dealing with prejudice and discrimination, not just in the workplace but often at the hands of their own family who have felt their heteronormativity threatened by the fluidity of gender and sexuality.
However, the potential of Shannon and Aletha, Kane’s sister, (Dalara Williams; Wiradjuri, Gumbayngirr) as next generation role models is watered down as they are forced into parallel variations of their mothers, embodying the “Angry Black woman” trope by fighting from the minute they meet until the wedding reception in act two, where they confront one another during speeches.
‘Misunderstanding exists across Indigenous cultures. To expect us to be one harmonious pan-Indigenous global community purely because we share an ongoing history of suffering at the hands of colonialism is naïve’
As the only queer character in the show, most punchlines concerning Shannon were at the expense of her transgender identity, most notably when, during their fight at the wedding reception, Aletha calls her a “tranny” in an attempt to win their ongoing popularity contest and to land a laugh from the audience-turned-wedding-guests. She is constantly othered throughout the show, spoken about as some mythological beast that takes up more space than others would prefer.
Shannon represents the ongoing fight for dignity many within the Takatāpui (meaning intimate companion of the same sex, used by Māori identifying as gay, lesbian or transgender) community experience at the hands of colonialism’s insistence (through Christianity) to reduce gender and sexuality to binary terms. Historically across the Ocean, people who have non-heteronormative lifestyles held roles of great cultural and social significance within their family units and by extension their communities. Other terms relative to the Oceanic community that explain alternative genders are Akava’ine (Cook Islands), Fa’afafine (Samoa), Māhū (Hawai’i and Tahiti) Fakaleiti (Tonga), Vaka sa lewa lewa (Fiji), Fakafifine (Niue), Pinapineaaine (Kiribati and Tuvalu), Sistagals (Tiwi Islands) or Whakawahine (Aotearoa). They often take on roles of nurturers and caregivers, blessed with the ability to move between genders if they choose. The introduction of Christian values changed this dramatically, making them victims of severe discrimination and violence.
In 2020, as we see a renewed resistance by takatapui in their communities and the public eye, this level of transphobia not only reads as outdated but irresponsible.
As I watched the four strongest female-identifying characters war with one another relentlessly (with impressive stamina I have to say), I couldn’t help but think “Who the hell wrote these womxn?” A growing sense of shame sat at the bottom of my stomach as I watched them tear one another apart at the expense of their own integrity and morality, while the male characters stood helplessly by. Uncle Mick, the ever stoic and tech-savvy elder, was the only consistent voice to de-escalate fights across familial and cultural lines, and that speaks to not only the integrity of his character but the importance placed on his role as an elder within both cultures.
Takiwaho’s character, Robert, spends the entire production attempting to win back the affection of Sylvia. He had abandoned her when their girls were toddlers, when he discovered a new freedom working FIFO (fly in, fly out) during the Western Australian mining boom. Again and again he raises the pressures that Indigenous men are placed under in western society, portraying how many such men succumb to the pressure and abandon their families altogether. However, because his character is pitched as that dorky but highly loveable dad and played convincingly, we frame him as a victim of his strong-headed ex-wife (who has spouted racist slurs for a large chunk of the show) because she refuses to take him back.
This third subplot attempts to illustrate the knock-on effect of gender-specific trauma, as Robert becomes the face of Indigenous cis-hetero male oppression in the story. In the middle of the wedding reception, his character illustrates how when men hurt, they hurt their women, who in turn hurt their children.
Jokes throughout the play about Jake “the Muss” Heke (Once Were Warriors) as the only Māori cultural point of reference for the expression of masculinity didn’t help his call for compassion, and felt tasteless given how Pacific Islanders and Māori are overrepresented in the Australian and New Zealand prison systems. In New Zealand, most are imprisoned on charges of assault or domestic violence (most recently highlighted by the imprisonment of half of OneFour, an internationally famous drill rap group from Mount Druitt, Western Sydney). By the third time this joke rolled around Māori and Pasifika audience members around me, including the man next to me, stopped laughing, because many of us have seen that reality. By the time Robert makes this point in the show, however, there is so much chaos from the fights between families and lovers that not only is the point lost, but it seems mute against all the female rage.
‘What I wanted even more was to see these characters grow and overcome internalised hatred because they have learnt to respect each other through talanoa (conversation) and can see that supporting someone else’s expression of culture and journey to sovereignty is not a threat to their own.’
This is disappointing because toxic masculinity as a by-product of white supremacy is an important issue that needs to be openly discussed amongst our men and womxn, and had it been taken seriously earlier in the play, instead of used as a weapon against Kane and his family to reinforce harmful stereotypes of Blak men, we may have felt more compassion for Robert.
And this is why I left feeling hurt and ashamed. I didn’t recognise any of these womxn in my family. I didn’t recognise any of these womxn in my friends. I didn’t recognise the way these characters were choosing to engage with issues that seriously impact the mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing of our men and womxn. Instead of fighting the real issue – colonialism – they were fighting one another.
I know these people exist, that’s a sad truth. I know there are people in our communities who reduce our mana (power) to the stereotypes the colony encourages us to play, who inherit unfounded prejudice and racism by osmosis. I know we need to see they exist, to remind us that we can be our own worst enemy. But what I wanted even more was to see these characters grow and overcome internalised hatred, not just because their children are getting married, but because they have learnt to respect each other through talanoa (conversation) and can see that supporting someone else’s expression of culture and journey to sovereignty is not a threat to their own.
Technical mishaps aside, my strongest questions remain about the integrity of the script’s dramaturgy. As First Nations artists, it is imperative to ask ourselves – what is sacred to my peoples and how do I protect it honestly? Our bodies, our lives are politicised everywhere we go without our consent so our choices in constructed spaces must be intentional.
Once you offer up a work, you have no control over how an audience will read it as they bringing themselves and their contexts with them. I brought myself, my Māori and Aboriginal family and friends into the auditorium. Being born in Aotearoa and raised on Noongar Country as he tagata ote fenua (people of the land) whose lands I was born and raised on, they have become two of the most important Indigenous communities in my life, parallel to my own, whose resilience in the colonial regime have taught me how to process the struggles and privileges I have encountered and embodied as an Indigenous womxn.
Comedy is an important tool of resistance for Indigenous peoples. We need to take ownership of our narrative. We are funny. We are joyful. We are silly and dorky and imperfect humans. And we need to showcase that to remind ourselves that we are more than our trauma. And frankly, I want to see more comedies by our peoples…but not at the expense of our integrity and solidarity, and most definitely not at the expense of honouring the truth of our stories.
*Please note that creatives whose tribal ancestry is not publicly identified (through online public communications) were asterisked. This is to acknowledge they are Indigenous but the author was unable to find information about their specific tribe at the time of writing.
Black Ties, written by John Harvey and Tainui Tukiwaho, directed by Rachael Maza and Tainui Tukiwaho. Set design by Jacob Nash, composition and musical direction Brendon Boney, lighting design by Jane Hakaraia, AV by James Henry, sound design by Laughton Kora, costume design by Te Ura Hoskins. Performed by Jack Charles, Mark Coles Smith, Lana Garland, Tawhirangi Macpherson, Lisa Maza, Tuakoi Ohia, Brady Peeti, Tainui Tukiwaho, Dalara Williams And Dion Williams. Ilbijerri Theatre Company and Te Rēhia Theatre Company, commissioned by AsiaTOPA.
The performance discussed was the Community night at the Sydney Festival in January.
- Perth Festival February 13-16 Bookings
- AsiaTOPA, Melbourne, February 21-29 Bookings