Rena Owen | The way we were
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The way we were

12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
The way we were
by Kim Knight
Sunday Star Times, August 30, 2009
IT’S one of our most famous plays, written by our most famous playwright, but it has never been professionally staged in our biggest city.Now, nearly half a century after Bruce Mason penned The Pohutukawa Tree, Auckland Theatre Company will find out whether audiences are ready for a work that contains the line: “Where are our Maoris? Our lovely Maoris!”

The play was the country’s first to deal with race relations issues. It has been studied by countless School Certificate English students and was dropped only last November from the national high school drama curriculum.

The lead role, Aroha Mataira, has been described as a “female King Lear”. It was big enough to entice Rena Owen, Once Were Warriors film star, home from Los Angeles.

“This play is a slice of New Zealand theatrical history,” says Owen. “But it’s also a slice of who we are.”

Didn’t Owen’s hackles rise when she heard the “lovely Maoris” line?

“That’s the way it was in the 1950s,” says Owen. “Maori were still very subservient, second-class citizens, trying to be very good little Maoris. A lot of people in the older generation say `what happened everybody used to get on fine’. And yes, they did. Because Maori never said boo.”

The Pohutukawa Tree is the story of Aroha’s ties to the land her ancestors battled for; her children who are trying to break free from her strict Christian ways; and her orchard-owning Pakeha neighbours who struggle to understand this proud and spiritual matriarch.

The Sunday Star-Times assembled director Colin McColl and the play’s three Maori actors Owen, Tiare Tawera and Maria Walker to discuss the relevance of the work today.

“The unfortunate thing is that it was written in the late 1950s,” says McColl. “And then we had the whole Maori renaissance, the land marches, Bastion Point, all those things, and it made the play unfashionable, because the last thing that Maori activists wanted was a play by a Pakeha that, in a way, denigrated Maori.

“Now, with the benefit of distance, we can look back and see it as a work of its time. We’re trying to present it so people can say `wow, look how times have changed’. Or maybe they haven’t.”

Tiare Tawera plays Johnny, Aroha’s wayward son. His character can’t speak te reo Maori. In real life, Tawera has just voiced Spongebob Squarepants for a Maori Language Week version of the American cartoon.

Some of the play’s dialogue, says Tawera, “is definitely something to laugh about but it does bring back how it was for people back then”.

Maria Walker plays his sister Queenie. “I’ve read that in 1951, 57% of Maori were 20 years old or younger. There was that whole thing of being colonised by the music and dance and all this wonderful stuff, that if you were a rural Maori you wanted to go to the city to experience…”

Today: “When I was 17, I could Google stuff! Back then, that naivety isolated everything.”

In the play, Johnny gets drunk, Queenie gets pregnant and Aroha loses a cast-iron Christian grip on her kids. There is plenty, say this trio of actors, that is pertinent today.

“It’s the lesson that happens to every generation,” says Owen. “You cannot control other people.”

Bruce Mason, who also wrote The End of the Golden Weather, Blood of the Lamb and Awatea, died in 1982. In a 2002 interview, his wife, Diana, said The Pohutukawa Tree was born of direct experience. Her parents ran an orchard, and the play’s Pakeha protagonists were loosely based on them. It was the work, she said, that prompted Mason’s realisation “that what he wanted to do with his life was write”.

By 1957, he had a play. But no audience. The director of the New Zealand Players agreed to a workshop performance. Richard Campion (father of The Piano filmmaker Jane) believed the script was too risky for a full production.

“Audiences wouldn’t have stomached this,” confirms McColl. “Things were very, very conservative in New Zealand in the late 50s . . . the only risk today is people might think it’s a dusty old piece.”

It was produced by BBC TV in 1959, and McColl says a 1984 reprisal by Campion was, “a very fine production, except for the role of Aroha there were no Maori actresses of that age around. The other thing that makes it right to do now is we’ve just got this wealth of talent to draw from”.

Rena Owen has a Maori father and a Pakeha mother. In the play, her pregnant daughter is spurned by her European lover, Roy. “My mother had been disowned by her family for marrying my father,” says Owen. “When Roy rejects Queenie because he can’t have brown babies, that’s exactly the attitude my mother faced.”

As an actor returning from London in the 1980s, Owen says she became caught between cultures. “Because back then, you had to be a `typical Maori’. Dark-as skin, bushy hair and I didn’t fit that mould.”

She got the part of Beth Heke in Warriors, and then watched while it took another decade for Maori film roles to emerge. “Which was in Whale Rider. Ten years. What are you supposed to do in the meantime?”

McColl: “Play Mexicans?”

And maybe it’s a further sign of the times that the actors, huddled together under a blanket for warmth, burst out laughing.

A NZ Book Council essay on Mason records that, in the early 1960s, as editor of Maori news magazine Te Ao Hou, he challenged readers to ask themselves: “Since I am Maori, what part do I want it to play in my life?”

Ask that question today, and the thing is, says Owen, “being Maori … it’s not a coat that you take off and hang in the wardrobe. It’s a part of your essence”.

Walker says her Maori father was strapped at home and school for speaking Maori. Her world is so far removed from his, she was shocked when she discovered that in the 1950s, some establishments erected “No Maoris” signs. Now, “we’ve got so much to offer as young Maori and there’s so much on offer for us … so many doors open for us”.

Tawera says the play is an opportunity to show how things have changed. So do the actors believe Mason’s depiction of 1950s’ New Zealand rings true?

“Writers are the only recorders of history,” says Owen.

“If you ever want to find out what’s going on in a civilisation, don’t listen to the politicians. Read the writers, listen to the lyrics, go and see the stage plays. You will get more truth about your society through your artists than your politicians.”

McColl says Mason simply wrote what he saw. “He was extremely sensitive to Maoris’ place in New Zealand society. He wasn’t the sort of man who said `let’s write a provocative play that will shock everyone’. I think he was just saying… ”

Owen finishes his sentence: “…this is us.”

© 2009 Fairfax New Zealand Limited

 

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