Speaking Under Urgency: A Review of E Kore A Muri E Hokia
This week Te Rēhia Theatre have brought E Kore A Muri E Hokia – their Te Reo version of Gary Henderson's Mo and Jess Kill Susie to the Basement Theatre. Matu Ngaropo discovers layers of new readings through translation.
From the outset of Te Rēhia’s E Kore A Muri E Hokia I listened attentively, attuning my ears to the language and the voices. I was excited – it’s not every day I get to hear a play in Māori. But as we got through the first 15 minutes or so, lots of questions kept running through my mind: what's the point of this play being in Te Reo Māori? Surely it’s not just about having that point of difference, or wanting to develop audiences? Artistically, there must be more to it?
Gary Henderson’s play Mo and Jess Kill Susie focuses on a hostage situation that at its core is about fighting cultural injustice. Two young Māori women bind, beat and essentially torture a Pākehā policewoman in an action of protest, which as the title suggests, won’t end well. Te Rēhia’s team of passionate young Māori language champions (Ani-Piki Tuari, Hania Douglas, Te Aorere Pewhairangi & Tawaroa Kawana) have translated Henderson’s script into Te Reo Maori for this production. As I discovered, there is more to it; the act of translation from English into Te Reo in Tainui Tukiwaho's production brings the play a new depth – commenting on language as a bargaining tool, a malleable weapon and a lifeline.
The act of translation from English into Te Reo brings the play a new depth – commenting on language as a bargaining tool, a malleable weapon and a lifeline.
The audience arrive to a jarring set of discordant images: Mo (Krystal Lee-Brown) stands in a corner wolfing down burger rings with a holster and loaded gun strapped to her thigh, Jess (Ani-Piki Tuari) sits cross-legged doing a crossword with visibly raw knuckles, and Suzie (Ascia Maybury) is bound, bloodied and blindfolded lying unconscious on the floor.
Mo and Jess are brutal girls. Both are hardened products of families and systems that haven’t been kind to them. As part of a bigger ring of activists, we quickly learn that these women, although thrust into this situation together, don’t know or even like each other. Through kōrerō that flows with the pace and depth of the Waikato River, we are given insight into their lives: Mo is a young woman grappling with identity and acceptance and Jess is a mother of three in the process of coming to terms with a husband recently released from prison. Both Lee-Brown and Tuari deliver raw and passionate performances, with Tuari in particular showcasing her depth of reo Māori ability. The characters challenge each other, both to stick to the grand plan and to speak only Māori, making the language a partition between themselves and their prisoner.
Like a hot kohua of boil up, I would have loved to hear the reo sucked, slurped and savoured just a bit more.
The often aggressive dialogue is used to effect, canvassing issues facing Māori women, from cultural displacement to physical abuse. With these concerns and fears being addressed in Te Reo Māori, they land on the audience with real, authentic weight and quiet acceptance. However there is a slightly academic style to the language that I felt could have been softened and slowed down. Ko te kai a te rangatira he kōrerō! Like a hot kohua of boil up, I would have loved to hear the reo sucked, slurped and savoured just a bit more.
If you’re not a Māori language speaker or don’t already know the original version of the work, this show will be a challenge. Despite there being a few conversations and words that pop out in English (which sometimes feel like little islands to take refuge on during a storm of hard-hitting reo), there was still a plethora of different kupu hou for me.
The most exciting moment of the play comes when Suzie wakes up and starts to cause problems. Throughout, we've assumed that Suzie can’t understand anything Mo and Jess are saying. Yet during her ramped up, emotional fight for survival, Suzie grasps at the Māori she knows, and ducks in and out of English, Māori and frustrated grunts as she scrambles to find the right words.
There are many speakers of Te Reo who don’t speak our language with the urgency it deserves, myself included.
What struck me was the idea that even though Suzie learnt her reo a long time ago, when we're confronted with a life or death situation we summon the courage and the means to communicate – to do whatever is necessary – almost from out of nowhere. She speaks Maori because her life depends on it. This hit me in a profound way.
There are many speakers of Te Reo who don’t speak our language with the urgency it deserves, myself included. I thought of so many people who had fought to keep it alive, who are still fighting now and how far the reo Māori journey has come. I thought that if some of those people were still alive, they would marvel at the sight of this work. Kua tutuki, kua ea.
In translating the work to Te Reo Māori this company have deepened and expanded on the play’s own core theme of survival with subtle and resounding success. Fighting for survival in this situation are three women, two cultures, and most notably, one language.
Fighting for survival in this situation are three women, two cultures, and most notably, one language.
It’s difficult navigating the fine line between living the language authentically and communicating the story with clarity and truth when this kind of work is still relatively uncharted territory. Tukiwaho has done a strong job with his company and the performances were brave and bold. As the first play in Te Reo Māori staged at the Basement Theatre, this show is already a success. The aim of the Te Rēhia whānau to “bring Te Reo Māori to our stages in a contemporary story that provokes discussion and challenges stereotypes” has come to fruition, and this needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. I was immensely proud and moved hearing my language flying through the space like knives and shaking the walls.
E kore A Muri E Hokia runs from June 27 – July 1 at the Basement Theatre. Tickets available here.