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  • Writer's pictureTE RĀKAU

Dog and Bone play looks at Colonial Wellington at war

Sarah Catherall, Stuff | 20 January 2016

There are two sides to every story, and Maori actor and thespian Jim Moriarty wants to revisit the idea of "goodies and baddies" in our colonial history.


Performers pose in dog-like positions to promote Dog & Bone a new play presented by Te Rākau
New historical play Dog and Bone looks at the making of our nation and fundamental questions like what is home? | Photo by Lily Ng 2016

A play presented at Te Papa's Soundings Theatre from tonight, Dog and Bone, is set on Wellington's South Coast and in Taranaki in 1869.

It tells the story of the Maori Land Wars, through the eyes of Maori sons fighting on opposing sides: Taiki is married to a Pakeha woman, and he chooses to fight for the Armed Constabulary, while his brother, Kuritea, is battling with Ngati Ruanui in the second Taranaki Land Wars campaign.

Staged as part of the Ngati Toi iwi-in-residence programme at Te Papa, Moriarty, of Ngati Toi descent, has four children plus a mokopuna in the 27-strong cast.

It's a creative partnership between his life partner, the playwright Helen Pearse-Otene, who shares the same philosophy; that even though they are both Maori, and promoting Maori theatre as a vehicle for telling New Zealand stories, they don't get into victim-blaming.

Moriarty is also a psych nurse, while his partner is a psychologist, and away from the stage, they run therapeutic programmes at the Maori Women's Refuge and the Kokiri Marae.

He's warm-hearted and one of his biggest joys is "seeing the Treaty in action" on stage, bringing in actors from a range of backgrounds, many of whom have never acted before, "but they're smashing".

"I'm Italian, Scottish and English, as well as Maori, so I love all the bits I am. It's going back and saying Pakeha came over here as settlers and there was a promise of a better life for them and it was nothing like they were promised," says Moriarty.

"Their deposits were taken off them back in England and they arrived here and contracts hadn't even been signed with the tangata whenua. There was a lot of shonky stuff that went on.

"Lots of people had a right to behave badly, I guess, from a place of resentment and unhappiness. But have a look at that unhappiness and you find that we're not that far apart – skin colour, ethnicity.

"This play looks at some of those fundamentals – what is home, the making of a nation? And it's so important for all those people in the show with us. You need to go backwards to go forwards. Unravel it. It's not about making you feel good because your great-grandfather killed my great-grandfather."

Up till now, Maori history about the land wars has often been one-sided. Awarded an OBE for his services to drama, the actor who once turned down the role of Jake the Muss says: "You look at how we get on now and you think, 'We're not that far apart. We want the same things'."

It's the second play in Pearse-Otene's Undertow series – a quartet of plays about the settlement of Wellington, which reveal major historical events through ordinary lives during the past 200 years.

For the research, the Wellington playwright (who studied New Zealand History at Victoria University) pored over settlers' and armed constabulary diaries, oral histories, newspaper articles and Waitangi Tribunal claims. Many of her plays have been about our past.

In Dog and Bone, while Taiki wants his people to lay down their weapons, his brother will fight to the end for Maori to keep their land. The Maori dog, kuri, which is now extinct, features in the play, acting as a metaphor for the way that Maori were portrayed to the Imperial government.

"Maori were framed as savages who needed to be hunted down and wiped out... and their dog, the kuri, was also portrayed as inferior to well-bred English dogs," says Pearse-Otene.

"There were dog taxes and pushes by farmers to get rid of them. Eventually, they became extinct."

Amid this turmoil, though, was "a lot of aroha, and a lot of love", she says.

"I wanted to write about ordinary people who are caught up in these incredibly complex, violent, scary times.

"From what I learned, sometimes people would swap sides, and some Maori fought for the colonial forces. Pakeha would also join the Maori side. There weren't goodies or baddies. In terms of the work we are doing, we need to constantly revisit our history."

The play is the work of the partners' Te Rakau Theatre Trust, which has Maori, Pakeha, Polynesian, Asian members, and works with troubled youth and adults in schools, maraes, prisons, and professional theatres. It is being staged in collaboration with Taki Rua Productions, the Maori theatre group.

"All of our work is peace making, bridge building," says Moriarty. "Dog and Bone certainly deals with some hard-arse issues though – some tough stuff, beheading, and all the stuff that war deals with. Plus, the desire for power. But in the end, you walk away from one of our pieces and we hope that you think we come from a place of love."

This story originally featured on Stuff. To read more articles, visit their website.

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