[A Precarious Performance]
Take a walk down Queen Street and it is difficult not to notice the numerous bodies huddled on the pavement. Yet despite the very real and ‘visible’ problem of homelessness in our cities today, the complex stories and experiences of those who survive temporary, shared, or uninhabitable accommodation is often invisible from public discourse. The new production The Race promises to rectify this problem by providing a platform for those whom might have survived racism and the streets to share their personal stories.
The Race is the latest work by the Hobson Street Theatre Company, which formed in 2010 out of the fluid community using the homeless services and drop-in centre of Auckland’s City Mission. A classroom is the setting for the performance, composed of a cluttering of student desks and a whiteboard which lists topics for a series of lessons such as basic greetings in Te Reo, ‘whakapapa’, ‘home’, and ‘graduation’. The whiteboard signals an engagement with Te Ao Māori which is reinforced by the Māori flag hanging off the back wall. As the performance begins five actors – Shadow, Kelly Tunui, Joeli Thacker, Rawiri Ngatai and Belinda Pollett – enter the space to not only portray loose ‘characters’ but to also present as real members of the community connected to the homeless services of the City Mission.
The classroom for beginner lessons in Te Reo, and the various lesson topics covering the whiteboard, become useful dramaturgical devices to help structure the stories of a group of individuals whose experiences we don’t often hear on stage. As the performance unfolds we hear from Rewiti (Rawiri Ngatai) who explains how he and his cousins lost their connection with Te Reo from an early age and how this disconnection was compounded when the meat works shut down in his local town and he was forced to move to the city. We also here from Zondi (Belinda Pollett) who explains what it was like as a young coloured child growing up in England, having to whitewash the walls of their house which were constantly being vandalised with hateful messages such as ‘Niggers Fuck Off’. Zondi re-enacts a scene where she asks her mum to explain what ‘Coon’, ‘Sambo’, or ‘Wog’ mean, highlighting both the absurdity and cruelty of racism and how it can damage and stigmatise even from a very young age. We also hear from Mona (Shadow), a hulking but gentle man who explains in a very tender moment that he wants to learn Te Reo so he can have a good conversation with his granddaughter.
These personal and touching stories are often interspersed with humour which more often than not missed the mark and became a little distracting. At the start of the performance, Kelly Tunui mimes the business of staring out a window expectantly waiting for the Te Reo teacher to arrive and who we are told is very stern and serious. A second later Tunui exclaims that he was joking and that he is in fact the Kaiako or teacher of the class. The performance contained a few of these awkward antics which might have reflected a preoccupation by the cast to be funny and to entertain the audience. In the long run I’m not sure they needed to worry about these preoccupations so much – their stories and experiences were engaging enough.
Threading the overall performance was a kind of reflexivity that comes from having real community members performing ‘themselves’ on stage. Although the programme did provide a list of ‘characters’, there was a sense that these were loose constructions, allowing the actors to present ‘real’ experiences that may or may not have been their own – but which nevertheless expressed a truth about experiences of racism and homelessness. The reflexivity in the performance comes from the actors constantly drawing attention to the ‘play’ they are performing, joking at the start that they were rehearsing for a musical, or asking the audience at the end to suggest an ending for their play. During each scene change the cast encourage the audience to sing the popular circus tune ‘Entrance of the Gladiators’ by Julius Fučík, as they stumble around and assume their positions for the next scene. Apart from the accompaniment from the audience, the classroom chairs, whiteboard and flag, The Race uses a minimalist aesthetic – no fancy lights or sound – a ‘poor theatre’ that pays homage to the Hobson Street Theatre Company’s roots. This stripped back approach to the staging places an emphasis on the actors as real community members, suggesting good directorial decisions by Bronwyn Bent and Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho.
Presumably the Reo classes and an engagement with Te Ao Māori are offered as a kind of remedy to the aggressive neoliberalism that contributes to housing instability and the high cost of living. And while these connections might have not been fully teased out or explored in the production, the play nevertheless seems to be a performance about a specific group of the precariat.
In his book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (2011), Guy Standing defines the precariat (a term that blends the words ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’) as a condition of ‘precarious existence’ – one that involves a ‘temporary status of some kind’. While Standing mainly applies the notion of the precariat, which emerged during the rise of 1980’s neoliberalism, to an analysis of insecure labour conditions in the global economy, the term can also be applied to various groups of people who have had their civil, cultural, social or political rights restricted or limited in some way.
The Race is not only about the insecurity of living arrangements, the temporary accommodation, or the shared or uninhabitable housing that constitutes ‘homelessness’, but it is also about the entrenched racism in this country that also contributes to the insecurity that this particular group of individuals might feel.
If the play is a performance of and by the precariat, then this precariousness can also be traced in the execution. You really have to admire the creative team. It must be a challenging task rehearsing and staging a performance with a group of individuals whose lives are ruled by instability. This insecurity ultimately shows in performance. The cast seemed to lose their place and lines were forgotten. There was a tendency to ad-lib and go off topic. But the cast also found their way again with each other’s help, and the audience were warm, generous and forgiving. Ultimately if this is a performance about precariousness, it also shows how theatre can help connect individuals and create a sense of belonging, security and community.
The Race is presented by Hobson Street Theatre Company and played at the Herald Theatre as part of Auckland Fringe. The production travels to BATS Theatre Wellington from 19-21 March as part of the Wellington Fringe.