REVIEW: Black Ties (Auckland Arts Festival)

Review by Jess Macdonald

[Tied by Bonds of Love]

Co-created by ILBIJERRI Theatre Company and Te Rēhia Theatre Company, Black Ties is a heartfelt exploration of what happens when two First Nation cultures collide.  

Written by John Harvey and Tainui Tukiwaho (co-director and ‘Robert’), the narrative comedy drama is expertly brought to life by an experienced cast under the guidance of Rachael Maza, award-winning Artistic director of ILBIJERRI. 

On a raised stage, we meet Hera (Tuakoi Ohia) and Kane (Mark Coles-Smith) – two young lovers out for a romantic hike in the Blue Mountains, Sydney. Kane begins to propose, but brother Jermaine (Dion Williams) interrupts – which takes the sting out of Hera’s ‘yes, but not yet.’ She insists they have to meet each other’s families before anything happens and Hera is quick to point out her mother, Sylvia (Lana Garland), won’t approve of the relationship because Kane is Aboriginal and not Māori.  

Scene transitions are given life by the wandering troop of musicians (Brendon Boney – composer, Laughton Kora and Mayella Dewis) who serenade the audience with a handful of originals, as well as favourites from both sides of the Tasman Sea.  

The narrative bounces with pace between the Baker family in Melbourne and the Tapuweras in their rural home in Aotearoa. The meet and greets don’t go to plan when Kane’s mum Ruth (Lisa Maza) welcomes Hera with insensitive plastic Hawaiian skirts, her face adorned with temporary Ta Moko. She’s encouraged by her daughter Alethea (Dalara Williams) and Kane’s Uncle Mick (Jack Charles – the grandfather of Aboriginal theatre) to reign in the cultural appropriation, but Ruth flares with jealousy when Kane and Hera use Te Reo and begin to wax lyrical about their ‘whanau.’ 

Back with the Tapuweras, the pōwhiri doesn’t go to plan. Basing their understanding of Māori men on Once Were Warriors references and, seeing the ritual welcome as a threat, Jermaine and Kane square off to the male members of Hera’s family. Luckily the wahines in Hera’s whanau dispel the tension, marked by the arrival of scene-stealing songstress Shannon (Brady Peeti). 

The performance powers through to a climactic interval, before the theatrical immersion  reaches its peak. Re-dressed after a short break, the room is transformed into a wedding and the audience become guests – the mood is light, effective and engaging. 

Like a wedding, the speeches wear a little thin but best man Jermaine adds a unique twist as he describes his upbringing with ‘mum’ Ruth. The character of Jermaine, as a fair-skinned Aboriginal, is noteworthy and a teaching point for audience members who may not have understood the full impact of Aboriginal ethnic cleansing.  

As the second-act romps through family dramas, the audience remains engaged by Tama-girl (Tawhirangi Macpherson) and her camera, which records snippets of conflict inside and outside of the wedding reception. 

Bathroom warfare between the mothers is underpinned by the cold note from Sylvia that yes, Ruth’s trauma is greater than hers as a Māori – but what does that recognition achieve? 

Profound words from Uncle Mick encourage the circle of trauma to break, namely between Hera’s dad, Robert (Tainui Tukiwaho) and his family.    

The dialogue throughout seems to reflect the two cultures as they clash and doesn’t stray far into the sentimental. A slanging match between Shannon and Alethea veers unapologetically through offensive terms which strike different chords with audience members – some reel with laughter, others remark that lines have been crossed. A throw-away comment towards trans character Shannon is particularly uncomfortable, and it is a shame the script makes no attempt to remedy or counter the racist or transphobic slurs. 

The script lacks some depth – with missed opportunities to elaborate upon what brought the two families together at the wedding under such strained circumstances –  but the production goes some way to make up for this through its comedic writing, and in performances from a powerhouse cast who play the crowd with perfect comic timing. 

A stellar achievement from the cast and crew – entertaining and uniting in spite of differences between the people of the First Nations. 

Black Ties plays Waitākere Room, Aotea Centre as part of the Auckland Arts Festival 11-15 March, 2020. 

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