In performance, both onstage and in the audience, people—indigenous or not—are always already playing together across diverse lines of identification. This seems especially true in Aotearoa New Zealand, where almost any performance one sees, outside of the most mainstream, middle-class theatres, features actors of Māori and Pacific Islander descent, albeit often cross-dressing into Pākehā(that is, European) roles. Even if the text has nothing to do with indigeneity on the surface, its pretexts, subtexts, contexts, and intertexts are deeply woven into the fabric of New Zealand theatre and performance in the twenty-first century.
Much of what we see now is the result of a long period of activism in which Māori artists returned to the marae(the complex of land and buildings at the center of tribal life) and its performative protocols for inspiration. For these artists and those who have followed, including many non-Māori, the marae, with its distinctive rituals and performance practices, is central to the cultural imagination. As such, it serves as the starting point from which to create new theatrical platforms—from Kapa Haka to theatre, dance, and cabaret—for staging responses to colonization as well as to globalization. Such performances, including those reviewed here, explicitly mix and match ideas and practices that can be identified as “indigenous” or “traditional,” with elements drawn from European and American popular culture. These performances can be enjoyed as entertainment while also acting as self-reflexive, often deeply ironic and provocative political statements.
The biggest such platform is the national Kapa Haka festival, Te Matatini. Te Matatinimeans “the many faces” and is the latest iteration of what began as the Polynesian Performing Arts Festival in Rotorua in 1972. Kapa Haka can be seen as a performative tukutuku(woven flax) panel: a distinctive genre of Māori waiata(song) and haka(dance), interwoven from ritual (in particular, pō whiri—the ritual of encounter), sport, theatre, and pop culture to produce an evolving sense of what it is to be Māori in postcolonial Aotearoa New Zealand. Kapa Haka is bound in te reo(language) and tikanga(protocol), yet set into a European frame, speaking to a predominantly Māori audience and simultaneously broadcast to the world via television. It is vitally poised between the pre- and the postcolonial, between the “indigenous” and the “European,” and between the “traditional” and the “contemporary”—all artificial binaries that are themselves colonial constructs.
This year’s festival was hosted by Ngāi Tahu in Christchurch and featured forty-five groups representing iwi(tribes) and regions from around Aotearoa, including, for the first time, a group from Australia. With thirty to forty performers in each group (almost 2,000 performers) and about 5,000 people in the audience each day (rain or shine—mostly rain), it was indeed a festival of many faces, together enacting a performative conversation about what it means to be Māori in the twenty-first century. The groups began as prescribed by performing whakaeke: entering the stage “as if onto a marae” in ways particular to their tribes, announcing themselves in song and dance while also acknowledging the hosts and offering respect to the others.
As extracted and adapted from the ritual practice of pō whiri, the repeated performance of whakaekereminded everyone present that there is no monolithic Māori nation. After all, the clustering of diverse tribes under the broad heading “Māori” (original meaning, “ordinary”) was an indigenous response to the arrival of Europeans, who were, by definition, extra-ordinary. (Trans)indigenous encounters happened as peoples traveled among regions, engaging with one another through the performance of pō whiri—a practice that extended to contact with European others as well.