REVIEW: Little Black Bitch (Basement Theatre)

Review by Cassandra De La Croix

Howl of the Kurī

Little time, little knowledge. Are we making ourselves heard? Are we putting in effort to be heard? Are we listening? Just like demons, emotions can blind and turn our minds and our souls BLACK. We take our time to react and fully don’t set in motion until the deed is done and it is too late. It’s a BITCH, disease fast spreading. Barking and fetching us the rope. It is…

Little Black Bitch, written and directed by Adam award winning playwright Jason Temete, is the second installment of his Over My Dead Body series and a collaboration between Tuatara Collective and Manukau Institute of Technology as a part of the Matariki Festival 2019.

Jason opens the space by giving a brief disclaimer about the contents of the piece (suicide and mental distress, which this review will also address) and allows the audience to know that if any discomfort or triggering is felt that it is a safe space and we are free to leave. A counsellor is on hand ready to support and korero at the front of the audience if needed. He generously mentions that on behalf of the Manukau Institute of technology five free counselling sessions are available to all audience members as well as there being a bunch of amazing helplines listed in the pamphlet like Thelowdown, Youthline and Helpline.

We settle into darkness as a group of performers form on stage, blended into the dark walls and curtains powerfully singing “Haere ra, Haere ra” as a funeral recession and haka sweep through the theatre. It is here we meet Rangi (Rangihawe Kahu) and his friend George (Georgie Tuipulotu) who reminisce about their dear friend Matiu who took his own life. They mention the Kurī (dog) Toto (artistically performed by Camille Jayne Atkins), who everyone wants to find as they suspect she has disappeared with Matiu’s last words in a suicide note. By fate, Rangi encounters Toto in his bedroom; her presence is dangerous but comforting and they soon become inseperable though she is not what she seems. Everyone tells Rangi that if he finds Toto to capture her, handing him a leash in the form of a rope. He keeps her his sweet secret throughout the story but, as we know, secrets can not stay burried and things in the end will always find a way to the surface.

Written gorgeously by Jason, there are times when Rangi shines and speaks in poetry, painting his inner thoughts but ending in blackness.

A song is sung in the play written by Jason and translated into Māori by Hemi Kelly:

He kupu e kore e korerotia

Kei roto e puritia Ana e

Ka toro au ka huri atu e

Maku koe a taki e

There are so many words you will not say.
They are burried deep inside.
I reach out, you run away, but let me be your guide.

These words resonate with Rangi’s journey. The notion to speak and say something when needed is constantly repeated, but words like “weak and selfish” are the only words he echoes within himself. In a dream sequence a Kaitiaki (guardian) tells Rangi that “we are allowed to feel”, but this is protested by Aunty (Rosalind Tui, who gives a genuine and heartfelt performance), who tells Rangi to harden up when he is at a low. Aunty also acknowledges the stigma of men being criticized and not being allowed to talk about how they feel as well understanding there is an issue but remains unsure of how to approach it.

Supported by a talented ensemble, breath, song and movement choreographed by Vivian Hosking Aue take this play into a whole other realm and spiritual setting. As Pasifika and Māori these tools are a gift given to empower stories and inject the roots and beliefs of culture throughout the artistry. I think it is also important to point out that references to traditional pasifika beliefs related to mental health and illness are understood to be caused by a spiritual external force. The dream scenes and Māori waiata reinforces belief of ancestory and the importance of knowing where you stem from and who you carry on your shoulders with you.

Jason gives us the opportunity to question whether we understand mental health and the stakes? Are we paying attention to the people around us in a society?

It’s straight to the point and clear from the beginning, no need to decipher and disect what purpose this piece serves. I believe it demonstrates the need to provide more funded mental health services within New Zealand and more discussion especially within Māori and pasifika groups around depression. Youth of pasifika background between the ages of 16 – 24 have the highest rates of attempted suicide. I think there is room within the piece to explore further the tension between cultural outlook and medicinal western aspects of mental health so that audience members can receive different perspectives. This play is so damn necessary and I thank all involved in its production.

Little Black Bitch plays at Basement Theatre until 6 July.

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