Playwright and director Jason Te Mete’s mental health narrative, Little Black Bitch, has graduated from a student-driven ensemble to being the professional premiere for his company Tutara Collective. It’s impossible not to enter and approach the work with heightened expectations though. Winner of the Adam NZ Award for Best Māori Play and glowing reviews from its original season inevitably colour the lens of watching a work for the first time.
The suicide of teenage Matiu, and the subsequent disappearance of his dog, drives the heart of the story. Matiu’s absence is a sort of black hole that threatens to suck the other characters into it. It’s his close friend Rangi (Poroaki McDonald) who seems the most affected by it. All he has left to cling to is Matiu’s missing dog Toto and a rumoured suicide note. This set-up provides a clever dramatic device that ultimately pays off but isn’t fully realised. What Te Mete does expertly, however, is establish a world where good people are blind to the pain around them. A reminder that the world doesn’t have to be outwardly brutal to you for it to feel dark inside your soul.
It’s charming to see a play so invested in building the world that its characters populate, gifting us with a sense of community. There’s an unhurried quality to the plot that gives us time to really get to know its characters. This comes slightly unbalanced in the more rushed second half, as a dramatic series of events have to quickly ramp up towards a conclusion. Up until that point the play lacks any real sense of dramatic tension, giving us a passive protagonist who is simply victim to his warped perception of reality. What it lacks in dramatic beats, however, the play compensates beautifully with a welcome dose of slice-of-life observations.
Performances are consistent all around, steeped in rich humanity and recognisable everyday traits. The young men (Poroaki McDonald joined by Vincent Farane and Ihaka Kelly) banter and joke restlessly, confronting the subject of their friend’s death in fleeting doses. The strain of toxic masculinity is present but not overbearing. It’s a fascinating tonal balancing act, never shying away from a good laugh but never forgetting the seriousness of the play’s backdrop.
Te Ao o Hinepehinga, Bronwyn Turei and Matu Ngaropo ground the world as the central adults and caregivers of the piece. In many respects they form the sensible heart of the play, presenting flawed but never monstrous individuals in a time of crisis. Turei and Ngaropo, in particular, provide rich humour with their clumsy flirtations.
The combination of young characters dealing with such serious material can risk veering into melodrama and turning into an after school special. Te Mete avoids this by bringing together a talented ensemble driven by an understanding of the works intentions. Not simply playing the play’s themes but playing the heart of their characters.
The design elements nod to the overall theme of the play, steeped in funereal black with a rata tree anchoring the set. Outside of that, the play shifts quickly back and forth between locations, and the minimalist staging supports this nicely. Lighting too is often punctuated with shadows. The only reprieve from this oppressive moodiness is in the dream sequences, which verge on musical theatre. And it’s in these dream sequences that, along with the direct reference to Toto, Little Black Bitch makes nods and alludes to The Wizard of Oz. It’s a fascinating reference point, as the play’s colour scheme tends to sit opposite of Victor Fleming’s technicolour classic. Te Mete leans into the darkness, but embraces the mana-stirring power of song, dance and waiata through Māori mythology. Many of these musical sequences demonstrate talent well worth the ticket price alone, and are absolutely transcendent to witness. I do wish they were stitched more seamlessly into the story’s structure though.
The title of the play refers to the personification of depression in a playful, animalistic performance by Akina Edmonds as Toto. It’s a performance that plays ambiguously with the central theme. Not portrayed as oppressively evil or dominant, Edmonds creates a fluid creature, bouncing from companion to sympathy to mischief scene to scene. I’m struck immediately by memories of another similar personification – by Julia Croft’s dark horse in The Black a few years ago. Depression has a symbiotic relationship with its host, often turning into their only friend or sole confidant. I’m fascinated by how our makers have given shape to mental health (or lack thereof) on our stages in an attempt to understand it. It speaks to our contemporary theatre scene that playwrights still wrangle with the subject time and time again. Amanda Tito’s performance in Near Death Experience still strikes me as one of the most psychologically harrowing for nailing the specificity that comes with the mundane. Or A Lost Cause which threw the audience into the claustrophobic setting of a mental institution.
Some of these examples wallowed unforgivingly in their settings, striking me as perhaps needlessly bleak and potentially cynical but perhaps deeply accurate for others. It’s also fascinating to note that the works driven by Pākehā makers are also often individual-centric and existential, while Little Black Bitch and Joshua Iosefo’s recent Odd Daphne make community focus integral to their show’s production dramaturgy and kaupapa. No one mode of storytelling is better, but it is fascinating to see the needs of the community reflected in some of the stories told. I digress, but a whole essay could be written on the subject of theatre about depression within a local context. This context also provides a framework to view the significance and importance of Little Black Bitch and Tutara Collective’s intentions. The climate of suicide – particularly among our male Māori and Pasifika youth – is being acknowledged and responded to within the arts, and that couldn’t be any more heartening.
The ultimate message of Little Black Bitch is an important one, refusing to present any easy antidote to what is essentially a national crisis. What we are left with is the complex demand that we do not simply escape the darkness that is depression but must accept it is something we must potentially learn to live with.
If the kaupapa of Tutara Collective is to simply bring this darkness to light, to teach the audience a valuable lesson about reaching out and voicing their pain, Little Black Bitch does this without any question. What the show does point towards as an answer is a more holistic approach, calling to ancestral cultural knowledge. It’s a potent reminder that the tools we have to heal each other have been passed down for generations on this land, and require rediscovery rather than invention.
Little Black Bitch provides a necessary first step to providing more conversations and spaces for mental health practice in the arts. A conversation starter and welcome addition to our canon of works that double as cultural healing.
Little Black Bitch is currently touring Auckland and Whangarei.