REVIEW: Barrier Ninja (Auckland Live)

Review by Anjula Prakash

[Medicine under the spotlight]

The problem of othering has to be one of the biggest contemporary issues that is still only finding its light. The “us” vs “them” mentality places certain groups of people outside of what is considered “normal”, and they are then subjected to racism, inequality, isolation, and marginalisation with alarmingly harmful consequences. I was heartened that one of the opening acts in this year’s Matariki Festival, Barrier Ninja, created by Fran Kawene (Waikato / Maniapoto Tainui) and directed by Erina Daniels, is kicking off this conversation. Barrier Ninja looks at the obstacles faced by Māori in getting healthcare and the inequity that leads to unequal care between Māori and Pākehā. Barrier Ninja’s moving and sometimes harrowing accounts are relayed through the play’s compelling use of verbatim theatre. 

Kawene has collected real stories from nine individuals, either from the Māori or medical community, in the form of recorded interviews. The interviews are fed through an earpiece to actor Julie Edwards, a style of headphone verbatim we’ve also seen recently in ATC’s The Haka Party Incident. The minimal lighting and set leave the actor the main focus. The interview questions are projected on the backdrop and its use is also kept to a minimum so that it serves only to clarify and occasionally say who is speaking. Solo performer Julie Edwards takes on all nine “characters” and we get a vivid sense of who they are, including the hard-case practice manager, the lovely laid back wife of a dialysis patient, and a deeply troubled and anxious nurse. The responses to Kawene’s patai are cleverly interwoven to continuously construct a wider picture of hauora as it is for Māori, and as it exists (or does not exist) in a non-Māori environment. 

The use of verbatim is only one layer crafted by Kawene to give us a holistic experience of these community stories that is in line with the values of hauora and uses Māori methodology. Firstly, the space is held through tikanga Māori. Edwards opens with a mihi and also explains the concept of verbatim theatre – being mindful of making the content accessible to everyone. The concept of whakawhanaungatanga was introduced during the performance and is also enacted through kȱrero at the end with Edwards and Kawene. It’s not often I find a performance was too short, but I was left wanting to hear more from the interviewees. Further reflections and anecdotes would help the audience, especially those from a non-medical background, to comprehend the world of those who are chronically unwell. However, the final kȱrero was a natural resolution to the show as it filled in missing context.

As an audience member, it was very interesting to be able to guage who else had attended. On this night it included medical professionals and academics who were thankful for the insights and information received. Perhaps the feeling of wanting a longer performance comes from a need, evoked by these personal stories, to know more and know where we are going wrong in our communities and our health system. And to know also where our perspective needs to be changed. 

Kawene’s background in the medical field, performing arts, and as an academic has come together skillfully in Barrier Ninja. The play is currently performed as part of the Hauora Māori medical curriculum at the Dunedin School of Medicine, Otago University. However, medical professionals aren’t the only ones that need to see the show. It is an effective and moving piece of theatre. The voices of the invisible are given a mouthpiece and anyone listening will be imparted with cardinal truths that, while sometimes hard to hear, are poignant, moving, humorous, and important. 

Barrier Ninja plays Herald Theatre 19-21 June, 2021. 

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