Reviews, News and Commentary

Dawn Raids: Dark truths revealed through humour and heartbreak

Bella Kalolo-Suraj (To’aga), Lauie Tofa (Mose), Michael Falesiu’ (Sione/Fabian), Talia-Rae Mavaega (Teresa) Image, Andi Crown

Dawn Raids

Auckland Theatre Company

Auckland Waterfront Theatre

Until September 3

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

The last couple of years has shown just how dependant New Zealand is on overseas workers filling many lower paid jobs in the economy  with many sectors in the economy crying out for immigrant workers, especially  from the Pacific. The issue of  cheap labour has been a continuing factor in New Zealand since WWII when Pacific Island immigration increased with the encouragement of government and business. Pacific Island workers provided an important source of labour for expanding industries. 

In the 1970’ however there was a downturn in the economy, unemployment was rising, and an increasing number of Pacific Islanders were arriving on visitors’ permits. Many remained in the country to work and these ‘overstayers’ became scapegoats for those looking for someone or something to blame for the social and economic problems facing the country.

The dawn raids began in the 1970s in Auckland. They represent a low point in the relationship between the government and the Pacific community. It was a time when the New Zealand Police was instructed by the government to enter homes  stop people on the checking for visas and passports.

Oscar Kightley’s “Dawn Raids” is set in 1970’s Ponsonby with  police raids on the street, the pub and in homes.

In the play we encounter one family whose lives are in a delicate balance as they are sheltering an overstayer, Fuarosa, who is the fiancé of their son Sione. Her presence creates all sorts of tensions with the ever-present threat of her discovery looming over them.  There are conflicts between the couple and with the father Mose, who sees that even walking to the letterbox could attract unnecessary attention to the family.

We also connect with the family’s aspirations. The mother  To’aga who has an unfulfilled dream, the sister Teresa who is following her ambitions studying Law at University as well as pursuing a radical path in joining the Brown Panthers.

Then there is Sione who we initially encounter in his stage persona of  Fabian, pursuing his dream of being a star but is now performing as an ‘Hawaiian’ singer and Elvis impersonator singing with the Noble Hawaiian Sabretooth Tigers who in the final moments of the play morph into the Noble Samoan Sabretooth Tigers.

The play could have taken a more political approach peppered with polemical dialogue but Kightley has resisted this instead only briefly alluding to politics and history. What the play dose is show the impact of the raids on the one family and their close contacts.

This makes for an emotionally charged work which sees history in terms of individuals and their individual experience.

Each of the characters combines elements of the stereotype along with nuanced individuality which are brilliantly expressed

Lauie Tofa’s Mose as the laid-back patriarch who has difficulty controlling his family, especially Teresa is the comedian of the piece delivering his one liners and wry observations to create a man wanting to retain the good and the bad of village life and he also aspires to integration.

Bella Kalolo-Suraj as Mose’s wife To’aga is the voice of reason and solidity conveying much of the emotional richness of the play as she negotiates her children’s desires and her husband’s dictates.

Michael Falesiu’s performance as Sione/Fabian is brilliant. He has the voice and stage presence to make his cabaret appearances thoroughly entertaining. He also  manages the complex of the character, cleverly juggling stage career and domestic future with a palpable tension while Gabrielle Solomona as his fiancé Fuarosa, captures the wide-eyed innocence and eagerness of the newly arrived.

As Teresa, Talia-Rae Mavaega  gives a forceful portrayal of a young woman with a passionate revolutionary spirt confronting political and social issues as well as the issues of control within  the family

In the minor roles  Italia Hunt gives a finely judged performance as the conflicted policeman Steve as does Jake Tupu  as the politically ambivalent Bene.

Kightley’s play is an astute balance of the personal and the political, the humorous and heartbreak. Dialogue and music complement each other and there is effective use of the various settings of club, bar street and home. Kiightkly’s use of humour and the everyday makes the police raids, the sirens and the barking dogs all the more dramatic and threatening demonstrating the playwrights profound understanding of stage craft and of realising dark truths.

The play is  great reminder of one of New Zealand darker periods but it is also a reminder that we have some great dramatists whose work often doesn’t get shown enough.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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