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Bold act of resistance brought to life

Imagine if there was a transcript of moments leading up to Caesar's assassination, or a document with the words Jesus said when he lay on the cross, or what the leaders from around Aotearoa said in the days before Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed.

What would a director create with such detail?

For the answer, one only needs to speak to renowned filmmaker and theatre director Katie Wolfe (Ngati Tama, Ngati Mutunga) about her sell-out documentary-like play, The Haka Party Incident, coming to Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival in October.

The Haka Party Incident retells the events of May 1, 1979, when a Maori students' group He Taua visited a group of University of Auckland engineering students who were rehearsing their annual mock haka, which was a long-held tradition of the department.

A confrontation erupted and He Taua members were charged with rioting, but the university's “Haka Party” never performed again.

“I was always thinking, ‘why do Paheka want to dress up as Maori?' ” Ms Wolfe says.

“What's that about? What's going on there?”

Transformed into theatre, The Haka Party Incident takes the words said by the “actors” at the incident.

Ms Wolfe sourced the script's contents directly from historical records, interviews, transcripts, and board meeting minutes.

The script was written before Ms Wolfe's pen touched the paper.

“I would have seen about five verbatim plays in my life and I loved every one of them. I was entranced from the very start.

“I was intrigued by the crossover between fiction and fact.

“Even though the performers are performing a documentary, we are in a theatre, which is a house of storytelling. It is incredible because the audience trusts us.”

The blend of fact and fiction creates an alchemy of faith, Ms Wolfe says.

“I find it quite poetic because the way we speak is so . . . our grammar is terrible. We don't speak in full sentences. It becomes poetic after a while. I find it fascinating.

“It's quite funny in that sense. It's a whole lot of Kiwis telling the story about what happened.”

What people hear in the play is not a made-up story. The characters are real. Real people spoke the words.

But not all of the play is from the past.

Ms Wolfe's 15-year-old son choreographed and composed the eight haka performed in the play.

The production took four years of research and interviews to bring together.

“I had heard about the incident through Ranginui Walker's book Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou (Struggle Without End) as told through a Maori lens, which is so brilliant.

“It was a time of revolution.

“It was a very conservative period in New Zealand and there was a lot of change happening. I loved hearing all the interviews from those people around the university.”

Not only was this modern episode of conflict between Maori and Pakeha fascinating to Ms Wolfe, but it seemed to have been forgotten by a lot of New Zealanders.

“For some reason we have these stories that fall away.

“It was an absolute korero huna, it was a lost story.”

But not any longer — the story has been resurrected and is now taught in some schools around New Zealand.

“The fact it is part of the school curriculum is amazing.

“There were many moments I was struck by in the story. They hit me all the time.

“One of them was when I went back through the minutes of the Auckland University archives of the engineering council and the broader university leadership at the time.

“They had been asked to stop the haka for over 20 years and no one took any notice. There was absolute disregard inside the university itself.

“It was just amazing. It didn't register with anyone. It was unimportant.”

The chancellor saw the mock haka as a tradition and thought it would carry on, Ms Wolfe says.

“That was the thing that wasn't surprising to me, to see how those great months of power operate.”

But painful race relations need not only be educational.

“I wanted all those who were interviewed to have their truth celebrated, not only to educate but to entertain,” Ms Wolfe says.

The Haka Party Incident will be performed at Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival in October.

INCOMING: Renowned filmmaker and theatre director Katie Wolfe's The Haka Party Incident will be performed at this year's Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival in October. Picture supplied
THE NOT SO DISTANT PAST: Hilda Halkyard confronts the group of engineering students at the University of Auckland Quad in 1979. Picture supplied via Craccum magazine