Dawn Raids by Oscar Kightley was first staged by theatre collective Pacific Underground in 1997, 20 years after the national outrage. The play’s snapshot of the illegal raids on Pacific people under the guise of cracking down on overstayers would have hit home for everyone who experienced it — everyone whose families and friends had faced not only the violation of their domestic space but their right to call themselves New Zealanders.
Fast forward two and a half decades to 2021 and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issues a historic apology for the raids, acknowledging the government’s discriminatory application of immigration law and the dehumanising treatment of Pacific people, Māori and other people of colour by Police. With those topics already hot on our nation’s lips, it’s easy to see why Pacific Underground and ATC felt a re-staging of Oscar Kightley’s play was warranted this year.
Told with honesty and a liberal dose of humour, Dawn Raids follows one Sāmoan family across two primary locations. The first is the family home, where Sione (Michael Falesiu)’s fiancée Fuarosa (Gabrielle Solomona) is under threat of deportation for overstaying if she ventures out past the letterbox. Meanwhile, Sione’s mother To’aga (Bella Kalolo-Suraj) struggles to maintain peace between his father, stubborn traditionalist Mose (Lauie Tofa), and politically passionate sister, Teresa (Talia-Rae Mavaega). The second location is the Paradise Honeypot Club, where Sione croons Elvis hits with his band The Noble Hawai’ian Sabretooth Tigers.
The set design by G.O.M Arts Collective, Mark McEntyre and Tony De Goldi does just enough to establish these two very different spaces without adding unneeded complexity, creating the family home with a few pieces of furniture and two screens hung with family photos. The screens are significant, keeping out the reality of the raids and the random Police checks of anyone who doesn’t “look like a Kiwi”. By contrast, the Paradise Honeypot Club welcomes the world in, with Sione singing and speaking directly to us. Jo Kilgour’s lighting appropriately creates the ambience of the Club, using a consistent red to situate us in this fantasy space — for the show makes clear, though not cynically, that this is fantasy. Performing every night as his smooth-talking alter ego “Fabian”, Sione distances himself from his Sāmoan heritage. (“Why are you talking American?” Mose asks after stumbling into the Club.)
As well as addressing the raids, the show explores a family fighting their own battles around cultural identity and family structure. The strong cast (including Italia Hunt’s Steve and Jake Tupu’s Bene) helps Kightley’s flawed but likeable characters shine. While the advertising centres Falesiu’s charismatic Sione, credit is also due to Mavaega for her performance as feisty Teresa and Kalolo-Suraj for her firm and compassionate To’aga, whose very natural dynamic with Tofa’s Mose makes their clashes feel particularly real.
Despite the heavy subject matter, comedy and music are the backbone of the show. Musical director Posenai Mavaega’s sound work helps the narrative shift into a more bittersweet register, such as when Mose’s friend Steve, one of the only Sāmoans in the Police, thinks of his father and homeland. When we finally see the raids happening, the breezy guitar we’re so accustomed to hearing from Sione’s band melts into the sirens in a way that’s effectively unsettling. Mostly, though, music is a symbol of escape from an at times unfriendly world; with Sione’s performances serving as a rousing beginning and end to the play.
Dawn Raids looks past the history books with warmth and hope, emphasising the resilience of Pacific people at a time when the state stood against them. Directors Troy Tu’ua and Tanya Muagututi’a (along with assistant director Jake Tupu) have brought to life a vibrant show that’s well worth a trip down to the waterfront.
Dawn Raids is presented by Pacific Underground and Auckland Theatre Company and plays at ASB Waterfront Theatre 16 August – 3 September, 2022.