REVIEW: Maumahara Girlie (The Basement)

Review by Jess Holly Bates

[A Hopeful Encounter and a Question Mark]

Maumahara Girlie is pitch-perfect Matariki programming: a young, wāhine-driven interdisciplinary work unfolding the matrix of what it means to be Māori, disconnected, urban and educated. It is a fiercely contemporary conversation, which should come as no surprise. Writer and first-time director Mya Morrison-Middleton (Kai Tahu) is a sardonic, critical and connected force in the art world. Mya is one half of Indigenous collective Fresh and Fruity, well know for decolonising digital space in a way that is sharp, sexy and sarcastic. Tonight, I expect nothing less than full anti-system noise. Maumahara Girlie in the theatre is an act of reincarnation, the text had a first life as a work at Window Gallery in 2017 and those interested can still find it online here, published as a powerful text in four acts. Bringing it to the stage, the program assures me, is an experiment in embodiment and theatre through the eyes of a visual artist. 

The upstairs studio space in the Basement can be pretty unforgiving – it is the more intimate, less sound-proofed alternative – and Aydriannah Tuiali’i’s set dominates the small space. It’s a life-size skeleton of a wharenui. It’s bright red, it’s big and it’s effective. The wharenui serves as an act of occupation which forces our eyes to look through the infrastructure of a Te Ao Māori framework in order to see the movement, bodies and projections happening throughout the work. There is no escape. It’s equal parts clever metaphor and functionally frustrating – the ceiling presses down on the tekoteko, and the wharenui can only fit the space on an obtuse angle – a lucky few in the audience can stare into the mouth of the house, but there is an unsettling sense of entrapment for the rest of us. For the performers, it is a discomforting cage. 

That said, a sense of discomfort seems entirely necessary, sitting in this theatre, the program reminds me we are ‘on stolen land.’ The text is episodic, never settling on a single time or space, and it’s unwilling to hold our hand by offering a through-line narrative. Three performers from different disciplines – Onehou Strickland, Amanda Tito and Freddie Carr (a spoken word artist, an actor, a dancer respectively) – bring their voices and bodies to the work, but the overwhelming quality is one of silence. It feels like the whole of the work is baked in it; it’s an unusual, unsettling taste that brings us face-to-face with our own presence in this exchange. As a maker, I can feel some of this is the edge of the work showing – transitions feel lengthy and we suffer from a soupy pace that holds us, like the whare, from beginning to end. But I also feel excited by the prospect that time is expanding in both directions here as a function of narrative. “Girlie” is our central focus, and she has many names, time-codes and personas. We traverse our pockmarked colonial history through her, and this history is an uncomfortable one, from which there is no escape, merely an ever revolving door of indigenous disconnection. This quality of expansiveness offers a thread of how further development of the work might look. 

The text, however, is a rich starting material. We meet the story of Girlie, who is a deft weaving of myth and mundane, simultaneously omni-present and debt-riddled. We dip in and out of her worlds – from schoolhouse, to factory, to marae – but we are never permitted inside her head, in part because the text remains at arms length from the performers. The predominant style is narration, favouring telling us who is there and what has happened over showing us, meaning the bodies on stage are not always given enough work to do to help us hear the text. Maumahara Girlie begins to sing when interesting collisions take place, such as when we hear Amanda Tito offering a speech on an ugly history of assimilation tactics with the delighted pleasure of a twelve-year old in the debating semi-finals. Similarly, we come close when we hear the long white tail of early Kai Tahu intermarriages as a saccharine ECE story-time. In moments like these, when the characterisation on stage crystallises, the exchange with the audience clarifies and the complexity of the text can be heard against the delivery. In other moments, in modes of Pākehā parody or poetic deliverance, there is a need to tighten intention or disrupt the original text to serve the style brought by the performers. 

There is no shortage of material or formal range in Maumahara Girlie, bringing a melting-pot of  digitized voice-over, live messenger exchanges, the book-ending structure of sung verse Ko Te Pū (a Māori creation waiata) and exciting spatial interventions. At one point, in a kind of desperate detention, Carr collides a scene with a tagged apology – “I’m sorry” is written over and over down the window and wall to a ‘tupperware’ monologue.  These are all great ideas, excellent additions to a first staged work, promising plenty of uniqueness, nerve and talent to come. But I couldn’t help but crave the kind of repetition of form that might hold story itself, in ways that could develop, shift and disrupt over the course of the work itself. Maumahara Girlie has all the ingredients for a something truly exceptional, but seeks a process that might serve the complexity of the content best.

There is a small treat at the centre of the work: in one beautiful moment, all performative flack is shrugged off for a breath of exceptional courage. All three performers speak their pepeha, complete with conditional clauses, revisions and auto-updates typical of children of the urban indigenous generation. For this moment, all performativity decouples from the stage and the room hums with the reason we are all here. It’s affecting, and funny, and disarming. 

Indeed, it is this window into the bodies we see before us, into the stories they tell that are their own and are also not their own, that prompts several young Māori women to mihi at the end of the work, with no small amount of gratitude for the voices/selves they saw realised in this moment. Recognition is at the core of Maumahara Girlie, it acts as an invitation to clear space in this neocolonial timewarp we seem jammed in. In this way, Maumahara Girlie is both a hopeful encounter and a question mark. This work must be unpacked again, and I hope this happens in its future life. It peels back pain and disconnect with delicacy, and leaves its audience chewing on uncertainty. It’s a meditation that is not supposed to satisfy you. And that feels every bit as slippery as it should. 

Maumahara Girlie plays at The Basement as part of the Matariki Festival until 7th July. 

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