Writer delves into for­got­ten racial skir­mish

Theatre show fo­cuses on day stu­dents and ac­tivists clashed

The New Zealand Herald - - EN­TER­TAIN­MENT - Dionne Chris­tian

Avi­o­lent stoush be­tween univer­sity stu­dents and an ac­tivist group which changed New Zealand race re­la­tions for­ever fea­tures in a new doc­u­men­tary theatre show in Auck­land this week­end.

Writer and di­rec­tor Katie Wolfe has spent months track­ing down and per­suad­ing for­mer Univer­sity of Auck­land engi­neer­ing stu­dents and mem­bers of ac­tivist group He Taua to talk about the “Haka Party In­ci­dent”.

It took place on May 1, 1979 when about 25 He Taua mem­bers con­fronted engi­neer­ing stu­dents who were pre­par­ing for their an­nual cap­ping week haka party. Since 1955, the stu­dents, wear­ing grass skirts and car­ry­ing fake ta­iaha, had staged a mock haka on Auck­land’s Queen St.

They said it was good fun, but by the late 1970s an in­creas­ing num­ber of stu­dents viewed it as racist and of­fen­sive. Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, it had de­scended to the en­gi­neers writ­ing swear words and draw­ing sex­ual or­gans on their bod­ies.

De­spite com­plaints to the stu­dents’ as­so­ci­a­tion and the univer­sity, the Race Re­la­tions Of­fice and Maori lead­ers, the stu­dents re­fused to stop, so He Taua took mat­ters into its own hands. They chal­lenged stu­dents as they read­ied them­selves for the per­for­mance and the brief but bloody con­fronta­tion left some with cuts, bruises and bro­ken bones.

Eleven He Taua rep­re­sen­ta­tives were ar­rested and charged with a num­ber of of­fences; the sub­se­quent court case led to a tough look at New Zealan­ders’ at­ti­tudes to racism and re­sponses to it. The stu­dents never per­formed the mock haka again.

Wolfe first learned of the in­ci­dent from Dr Rang­inui Walker’s book Ka whawhai tonu ma­tou.

“Like many New Zealan­ders, I was not taught our coun­try’s his­tory at school and I was catch­ing up,” she said. “I saw it as a mo­ment of vi­o­lence that had erupted around is­sues of racism. This seemed to me a very sig­nif­i­cant event and I was con­fused as to why it was vir­tu­ally un­known.”

Fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tions re­vealed a num­ber of well-known New Zealan­ders were con­nected to the event, in­clud­ing for­mer MP Hone Harawira. In 2009, 30 years after the skir­mish, pro­test­ers — in­clud­ing Mr Harawira and his wife Hilda — were wel­comed back by the School of Engi­neer­ing.

In­ter­viewed that day, Mr Harawira told the Her­ald he stood by the group’s ac­tions that day: “When peo­ple refuse to do what’s right, at the end of the day you step in, do what you’ve got to do.”

Wolfe says the 40-minute per­for­mance The Haka Party In­ci­dent ex­plores the dif­fer­ing views and ex­pe­ri­ences of those who were there — then and now — and con­sid­ers what led to the in­ci­dent, what hap­pened on the day, ar­rests and sub­se­quent re­ac­tion at Auck­land Univer­sity.

She orig­i­nally wanted to make a doc­u­men­tary film and when that didn’t work out, shelved the idea but dusted off plans when Auck­land Theatre Com­pany asked her to de­velop a new piece of theatre.

“I’m not look­ing for blame or con­dem­na­tion,” Wolfe said. “I just want to hear what the par­tic­i­pants ex­pe­ri­enced. The dif­fer­ent groups in­volved were liv­ing very dif­fer­ent lives; their re­al­i­ties as New Zealan­ders at that time were poles apart. The idea we were all one happy na­tion, hav­ing a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence was not so.

“It’s good to con­tin­u­ally ques­tion the nature of racism in so­ci­ety. Any nor­mal­i­sa­tion of racism means there will be peo­ple whose lives are ad­versely af­fected by the at­ti­tudes. I also hope that we can push past the la­bel ‘racist’. It’s not use­ful call­ing in­di­vid­u­als racists; our fo­cus should be on so­ci­ety and how racism ex­ists in our every­day lives.”

Wolfe said she asked each of the ac­tors in­volved to ask ev­ery­one they met in weeks lead­ing up to re­hearsals whether they had heard of the Haka Party In­ci­dent.

“Out of 100 replies, there was only one per­son who had.”

She still hopes to make a film which will widen the scope of her in­ves­ti­ga­tion to con­sider why the Haka Party In­ci­dent was for­got­ten.

The Haka Party In­ci­dent is part of Auck­land Theatre Com­pany’s The Nav­i­ga­tors project to de­velop new theatre work and is billed as an op­por­tu­nity ex­pe­ri­ence theatre in the mak­ing. It also in­cludes a dance work,

Moon, by chore­og­ra­pher Malia John­ston and an orig­i­nal en­vi­ron­men­tal fa­ble called The Wild

Seed Thief cre­ated and di­rected by Kate Parker.

Pic­ture / Getty Im­ages

Katie Wolfe spent months find­ing those in­volved in the 1979 flare-up.

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