One year ago, a young Maori man living in a small community in Waiora and widely touted to be a prophet, took his own life, leaving behind a family whose close ties are threatened by confusion and blame. Now, that family has come together to set Joshua’s headstone and try to answer some of the difficult questions posed by his death.
With The Prophet, renowned New Zealand playwright Hone Kouka completes the trilogy of plays that began with Waiora and Home Fires. In each of these plays, the focus is on Maori in modern New Zealand, and how people triumph through the adversity caused by urbanization and cultural assimilation. The Prophet focuses on the new generation – Joshua’s cousins – the young adults who have been sent away to school, whose world hinges somewhere between Maori and Pakeha. They are fiercely proud of their heritage, but don’t always have the institutional knowledge to back it up. On a midnight visit to their cousin’s grave, the five central characters decide that they should “say a prayer, in Maori”. It is an idea agreed upon by all, but in the end, “no one knows one, eh?”. Asked the name of her cousin’s new baby, effusive and talkative Laura replies “Tipuni… blah blah blah. One of those long flash names”.
The pride and confusion of these characters is captured succinctly by both Kouka’s script and Nina Nawalowalo’s direction. The dialogue is often poignant and moving, but the play is never allowed to slip into sentimentalism. Moments of deeply affecting emotion are balanced by bursts of comic relief, allowing the script to stay buoyant and the characters to remain real. After a long and fairly harrowing conversation, for example, it is revealed that Andrew Beautiful – the smartest of the cousins, the one expected to become a doctor – actually wants to be a writer. “Ew!” Exclaims cousin Ty, “Like Uncle Hone?!” Nawalowalo also underscores significant moments with inspired use of pause and slow-motion, often involving basketball games, the play’s central motif. This is a difficult effect to carry off on stage but is dealt with seamlessly by her cast. The characters are extremely realistic, speaking in a modern vernacular peppered with Te Reo, their references coming from both modern pop culture and Maori mythology. The play moves to a soundtrack populated by artists such as Scribe and Nesian Mystic, establishing firmly the play’s New Zealand setting, but still exists in a broader global context. The kids read Witi Ihimaera and follow the NBA.
The Prophet is a good example of why simple sets are often the best. Next to a long strip of wooden flooring leading up to a backboard and basketball hoop, a bench, a basketball, a boom-box and a gameboy are the only real props. Lighting is used effectively to transform the sparse stage into, alternately, a basketball court, a graveyard, a river or the inside of a house. It is not lavish sets but strong characterisation that is the focus here, and Kouka and Nawalowalo have compiled a fantastic set of young actors. Relative newcomer Maria Walker is a standout as jovial, friendly but unselfconfident Laura, while Jason Te Kare brings a moving masculine complexity to the character of confused jailbird Ty. Noted actress Tanea Heke plays Aunty Kay, the only adult character to appear onstage. As a slow reveal establishes her as Joshua’s mother, Heke’s Kay wins the audience over with her affection for her nieces and nephews, her not terribly subtle but innocent smuttiness, and the pain, muted by cigarettes and alcohol, that lies beneath her comic exterior. Jarod Rawiri, Miriama McDowell and Mark Ruka round out the excellent cast.
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On the surface, it would be easy to paint The Prophet as a play about clichéd New Zealand social issues – urbanized Maori, youth suicide, teen pregnancy and parental pressure to succeed are all thematically integral. Don’t be fooled, however – it is Kouka and Nawalowalo’s ability to deal with these issues sensitively, to bring them out of the realm of cliché and to consider their ramifications on the real people affected by them that makes The Prophet a standout.
By Hone Kouka
Directed by Nina Nawalowalo
Downstage until 21 March