Cultural appropriation is always uncomfortable to witness, whether you’re at an exotically-themed dress-up party or your friend gets an unfortunate tribal tattoo. A much trickier grey area explored in Hayley Sproull’s Vanilla Miraka is when the lines between cultures are blurred, when you share the blood of the coloniser and the colonised. Is it still cultural appropriation if you belong to that culture?
It’s not all super serious identity politics though. The first half of Hayley’s investigation into her bi-cultural—specifically, quarter Maori—identity is a fun, if somewhat lightweight, series of sketches, original songs and a bit of stand-up. Whether she’s giving her mihi or swinging her poi, she grapples awkwardly with the traditions of her heritage, inviting us to laugh with and at her. At its most straightforward, this is a comedy about a white-passing woman trying to be more Maori and struggling.
As a performer, Hayley makes the content far more accessible than it might be in lesser hands, winning laughs with the slightest cringe or bemused smile. While she’s charming and effortlessly likable, a lot of the gags are played pretty straight, punch-lined simply by her discomfort and sense of failure. As entertaining as it is, it doesn’t wrestle with cultural appropriation so much as wink at it and move on. There’s one particular moment where she jokes about Maori stereotypes that comes dangerously close to reiterating rather than subverting them.
Compared to other recent shows investigating identity politics (White/Other, Tar Baby, Real Fake White Dirt), Vanilla Marika is also surprisingly restrained in presenting its message. Hayley avoids explicitly talking about the show’s themes except through jokes or anecdotes. The result is a gentler approach that is unlikely to offend or provoke audiences members.
The second half of Vanilla Miraka digs deeper into the show’s central premise, shifting its focus onto Hayley’s roots, and is far more successful for it. In fact, it’s almost a completely different show altogether and could easily stand on its own. Stripping back from the sketches and jokes, Hayley invites us to reminisce with her through an incredibly simple monologue surrounding the time of her Maori Nana’s funeral. While the presentation is simple the emotions simmering under the surface of the story are knotty and complex. It’s a masterclass in the most straightforward and lucid storytelling, guiding us with an invisible hand towards the heartbreaking final moments at Hayley’s graduation. There’s nothing saccharine or cheaply sentimental here, just incredibly earned moments of pathos and comedy.
While the second half elevates the show from a light comedy to something more profoundly affecting, the drastic shift in tone adds to the already fragmented structure of the show. Despite this, Hayley and director Jo Randerson do a great job stitching everything together with her physicality and playful transitions. In saying that, there’s still plenty of room for the text to grow, allowing for the various vignettes to say something as a whole, rather than merely sitting together side by side.
Vanilla Marika is at the best when it feels personal, when the jokes and anecdotes relate directly to Hayley’s real circumstances and real anxieties. The moments when she pokes fun at Maori culture outside of herself tend to feel too easy and unconsidered. At worst, impersonal and apolitical. While Hayley doesn’t presume to speak on behalf of anyone else, her situation is highly relatable and relevant to New Zealand’s cultural consciousness. Have we not all experienced inadequacy, guilt and confusion over our collective identity? The show doesn’t provide any easy answers, but it asks the right questions. A welcome addition to the ongoing conversations on our stages about who we are as people, as individuals and as a nation.
Vanilla Marika plays at The Basement until 24 September. Details see The Basement.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe