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The Pohutukawa Tree - the director’s view

Theatre that examines social justice is a conversation worth continuing, says Dinna Myers, director of Evolution Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Bruce Mason’s 1955 play, The Pohutukawa Tree.

At the heart of the New Zealand playwright’s classic is Aroha, a character one reviewer describes as having dissolved her hatred of Pakeha by turning to Christianity, only to witness the land, the pa, and her values taken from her “slice by slice, from the whale”.

“Aroha emerges as an isolated extremist; a classic tragic heroine whose fatal flaw is her unshakeable faith in a Christian god of love with all its colonial manifestations of hard work, due obedience and unimpeachable moral behaviour,” writes Ewen Coleman.

The play is set at the site of a bloody battle for the land that has since been sold by the Ngati Raukura and turned into a commercial orchard owned by the Atkinson family. The family employ the Matairas and assume “the old ways” will quietly fade away as the Maori assimilate.

“Importantly, Aroha believes the Ngati Raukura who have decamped to the coast are living dissolute lives — a view which is vividly counterpointed by a starry-eyed Rev. Athol Sedgwick, whose cultural perspective on their way of life is nevertheless cringe-worthy and dramatically interesting because of that.”

The play focuses on displacement, mixed marriage and the introduction of the Christian religion into the Maori ethic, says Myers.

“It focuses on a lot of hot points, that 250 years on are still hot. There is work to be done. I talk with my actors a lot about racism and how we perpetuate it without meaning to.

“You hope to inspire conversation, a dialogue. It fascinates me the play is a classic but as far as I can tell nothing much has changed.”

The disrespect the audience sees in the characters’ attitudes towards Maori is not intentional, says Myers. It’s systemic.

“There’s still a sense of loss. People say ‘it was a long time ago, get over it’. But I say ‘you’re white and haven’t lost everything’. My hope is people will look at the behaviour in the characters in this play and see some of that behaviour in themselves. We need to look at that behaviour and change it.”

The Pohutukawa Tree, Evolution Theatre, November 1-8 at 7.30pm; Sunday November 3 at 4pm). Tickets $22.50+bf - $32+bf from eventfinda.co.nz

IN REHEARSAL: Having fallen pregnant to Roy McDowell, played by Oscar Ruston (right), Queenie Mataira (Jess Horsfield, left), sits quietly as her brother Johnny (Caleb Collier) brandishes a taiaha at Roy. The actors are in rehearsal now for Evolution Theatre’s upcoming production of Bruce Mason’s play The Pohutukawa Tree. Picture supplied