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Reviewed by:
  • Theatre and Political Process: Staging Identities in Tokelau and New Zealand
  • Markus Wessendorf
Theatre and Political Process: Staging Identities in Tokelau and New Zealand, by Ingjerd Hoëm. New York: Berghahn Books, 2004. ISBN 1-57181-583-x; xii + 205 pages, tables, appendixes, linguistic terminology and abbreviations, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$60.00.

Norwegian anthropologist Ingjerd Hoëm, in her book Theatre and Political Process: Staging Identities in Tokelau and New Zealand, examines the [End Page 471] complex interrelationships between identity formation and sense of place, communicative practices and issues of representation, and nation building and regional migration, within the context of Tokelau atoll societies and diasporic Tokelauan communities in New Zealand.

The centerpiece—and most intriguing contribution—of the book is Hoëm's detailed documentation and analysis of the use of theater by New Zealandbased Tokelauans in the 1990s to deal with their history, culture, and experience of modernity. Hoëm contrasts two plays by the theater group Tokelau te Ata: Tagi (cry or lament) and Mafine (woman). Tagi was created with the larger Tokelau community in New Zealand in mind and dealt with the history of Tokelau over the last few centuries—from village life in precontact times toslave raids to the later migration to New Zealand. Mafine was produced primarily for atoll Tokelauans and dealt with the tensions between individualism on one hand and the strong family and community orientation of Tokelauan society on the other hand. Both performance pieces were developed by Tokelau te Ata without being written down.

In analyzing the cultural transactions and negotiations between the theater group and their audiences, Hoëm sheds light on some of the cultural practices, assumptions, and conventions of the different communities receiving both plays. Despite some minor criticisms of both productions, the Tokelau community in New Zealand, not known for conceiving of theater as antithetical to indigenous Tokelauan performance traditions, responded quite positively to Tagi and Mafine. The response wasdifferent once the theater group traveled to Tokelau to perform their second play. According to Hoëm, thegroup's expectation that Mafine would have some political impact in Tokelau was thwarted by the specific parameters that determine the reception of performances such as skits or clowning in the atoll. Not to offend the Council of the Elders, the theater group decided to present their performance as malaga (gift). This intention was well received, even though the absence of the elders from the first performance implied that the event was of no significance to the community. Also, the presentation of Mafine as a gift led the audience to interpret the play as a homecoming celebration by diaspora Tokelauans, thereby curtailing any social efficacy of the play outside the performance context. This lack of impact was sustained by the general perception of ordinary performances as "things of no account" (mea tauanoa), which allowed audience members uncomfortable with the play to avoid confronting any of the issues presented by it.

Among the major aspects of Tokelauan culture pointed out by Hoëm are what she calls "sided" relationships within Tokelauan society: In order to maintain egalitarianism and to avoid conflict within the community, the competitive aspects of behavior are only allowed to be expressed in symmetrical relationships between "similar sides." The formation of sided relationships can be observed in the responses to Tokelau te Ata's performances both in New Zealand and in Tokelau. In both cases, traditionalist [End Page 472] community members responded tothe plays by producing their own theater pieces that challenged the assumptions of Tagi and Mafine. Unfortunately, Hoëm does not provide any detailed documentation or analysis of those counterplays. What she makes clear, however, is that the political messages of a group like Tokelau te Ata can only be successful if the actors take into account the target community's conceptions of identity, place, performance, knowledge, and interaction.

In later chapters, Hoëm resumes her discussion of the complex negotiations between traditional Tokelauan culture and the more westernized Tokelauan diaspora in New Zealand from different perspectives. She explores, for example, how those negotiations affect notions of political organization and activism in both communities. She also compares and analyzes various oral...


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