A play about racism and homelessness: by those who have faced it
The Race is an original piece of theatre about those marginalised by society, created by those who have been marginalised themselves. Simon Day spoke to some of the cast about the role acting has in their lives.
His gappy grin beaming across the street, Rawiri Sears Ngatai was waiting at the top of the stone steps of St Matthews-in-the-city, the rehearsal space for the Hobson Street Theatre Company. “Come on e hoa!” he says with warmth as he welcomes me up the stairs and into the church. Waiting are Joeli Thacker, initially quiet and shy, and the giant Kelly Tunui, who greets me with a hongi and a joke which makes everyone laugh – the class clown.
They’re a selection of the cast from The Race, which opens at the Auckland Fringe Festival tonight, a piece devised by the company, which explores how racism affects those facing homeless. It’s dark, and funny, and confronting, drawing from the lives of its cast. Each of the three actors I met have unique experiences that have brought them to acting, and each has experienced racism, homelessness or both. The Hobson Street Theatre Company has become a place where they’ve found direction, passion and support.
The Hobson Street Theatre Company (HSTC) was founded in 2010. It was designed by senior theatre producers Bronwyn Bent and Sally Barnett to be a place where people who are facing homelessness, or have in the past, can engage in a weekly drama group. Working with the Auckland City Mission, they’ve created a space that has become a home for the community and a tool for that community to share their experiences with the audience. “[This is] a company that that uses theatre as a tool for change.”
For Rawiri, Joeli and Kelly, it’s been a place where they’ve found friendship, a career, and an opportunity to change perceptions of the homeless community. The company has been a platform to find security and orientation in their lives. A place where their stories have value and prominence.
One rainy Auckland afternoon The Spinoff spoke to the three members of the cast about racism, homelessness, and the power of theatre. These are their stories, in their own voices.
Rawiri Sears Ngatai
I moved to Auckland to find something. I come from Taihape. Born and raised in Taihape. I came here to find work and opportunity because there was nothing in Taihape. It was scary because when I first came to Auckland I couldn’t get a job. And then I found myself homeless. I had children as well. I had a missus, and two beautiful daughters. My twin girls.
In 2013 I found myself on the street. I wanted to get away from all the trouble. Me and my partners decided to separate because of different circumstance.
I went through some personal issues, some mental health problems. I came to Auckland City Mission every day and that is when I found out about the theatre company. And it just reignited everything. I’ve been in the company ever since.
It was very scary to think looking back about what happened when I came to Auckland, and now I am quite blessed to have this opportunity. That is why I joined the Hobson Street Theatre company – so I could express what I went through, and performing in front of people.
It’s given me positivity and motivation to keep going rather than looking back. If it wasn’t for the theatre company, if it wasn’t for my whanau, if wasn’t for the whakawhanaungatanga that went with reconnecting with taha Māori, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have a house to live in. I wouldn’t be around positive people. I’d be doing drugs and drinking all day, getting in trouble with the police. That sort of thing.
It’d been ten years since I was got involved in acting. The first time I got into acting was through my teacher. She pushed me like anything. She pushed me so far, and I was going to keep going. She told me I was talented, that I was going to perform, and inspire people. And she was right.
I’m very blessed I’ve come so far. The industry is so hard, you’ve got to keep working. I’ve done some extras on Shortland St. As part of an exhibition we did a short film about the first Māori people that came to New Zealand. Last year I ended up in a feature film, called Resolve. It was the true story of Chris Crean.
It was the first time I played a gang role. I could never imagine myself playing a gang member. Because I have family like that in gangs. I had to use that to portray something like that, and it was scary, very scary. I’ve never played a role like that on TV, the whole nation watching you, it’s like oohhhh shit.
And this company was my stepping stone to getting into professional acting. I feel like I’ve reached that goal. But there are challenging times as well. Following your dreams and not giving up can be so hard. Last year I just wanted to finish and give it all up. I’m in that recovery mode too. Acting is my therapy.
But last year I was going to drop everything and go back to the way I was. But one of my mates who’s an actor said to me: “I have those days where I want to give up. It’s OK to fail and get up again.” And this is where the company has been a stepping stone to continue.
I am excited for The Race. Because it gives me a chance to talk about racism, specifically racism towards homelessness in New Zealand. It’s going to be controversial. We are here to say this is the reality, this is how we see racism. I have experienced. Some of our bros have experienced it. And this is what the show is all about.
We know it is going to be controversial because when people go they are going to think: “oh, I was racist.” This is where the show is targetting. It’s asking people to ask themselves about their own behaviour and racism.
It’s about knowing who you are where you come from. Whakawhanaungatanga is what I’ll be talking about. And tino rangatiratanga is the basis of my character. That is the message I want to send out, never forget who you are and where you come from. Never be ashamed of who you are. I was ashamed of my own culture. That’s why I am using this character in this show, never forget your heritage.
This is my first production with the Hobson Street Theatre Company. I do volunteer work at Merge Cafe on K’ Rd. I told one of the other volunteers that I was out of work at the moment, and looking for some acting work, and looking to get my feet wet. And he told me about this theatre company. They’d been preparing for this play for about two weeks, and they said just come along.
I did acting for a year when I first left school. I got sidetracked by a lot of things, and I came back to it in the last year. It’s a tough game, but I like it. It’s really enjoyable. I’d spent the last 14 years in kitchens. I didn’t really see myself being 50, let alone 60, in a kitchen.
What really kicked it off, a couple of years ago I lost a brother to cancer. He said to me before he passed away, you’ve just gotta have the courage of your conviction to do what you want to be doing. It took a couple of years to make the decision, but I got there.
My character is James. And James is racist. He has his only selfish reasons for being in the environment he’s in, in the play. He has no interest in learning anything about tikanga, or te reo. He wants to utilise what he learns to get what he wants.
Whether we like to admit it or not we all have these prejudices or views that can come out when we least expect it. Even as much as we would like to hide them. At some point or another the truth always seems to reveal itself.
It’s not the easiest character to do. I’ve been that person who is hateful and angry. But I’ve been away from it for a while. Just the whole feeling of trying to embrace those things for the role. It’s a bit uncomfortable. It takes up a lot of energy. Being angry and hateful is tiring.
James does a monologue. Each character has a monologue through the play. There’s an analogy that James brings up that I took from something I experienced myself, racism I witnessed. It was surprising, but it didn’t feel like something new.
My boy’s mother, she’s Māori and she was dropping me off, my six-year-old boy was in the backseat, she was driving. We literally parked up and were sat there for about a minute and weren’t doing anything wrong. This parking warden guy pulled up alongside us and said if you don’t move on I’m going to give you a ticket. That was because of the way she was dressed, and her car wasn’t that nice, and, I believe, because she had brown skin.
I had to jump out of the car and tell him to stuff off. She’s a proud woman but when someone is intimidating you in that fashion, I think she was in shock. She was frozen.
That’s what comes up in his monologue, but as a character he sees it from a completely different point of view.
With the current situation, with the president of the United States, it seems like there are so many people in the world who have these racists opinions and have had to lock them away for so long. Now they feel so empowered to express what they are openly. I think that’s not just in the US, it seems to be permeating all over the world.
I want people to walk away from this show and feel like they are empowered to talk about these things with people, without feeling they are demeaned, and feel like they are entitled to an opinion whether they are white, black or brown, and feel comfortable to discuss these things openly.
If we let people intimidate us into not talking about it openly, they’re the ones that end up winning. This play, is that key that can unlock the door to having that open dialogue.
I come from Tauranga. I’d biked all over Tauranga, Papamoa, Otumoetai. I biked to Rotorua. Tauranga was too boring. So a bus brought me to Auckland. There were more things to see, there were more things to inevitably be a part of.
For the last three years I’ve been participating with the Hobson Street Theatre Company. I’m not like Shadow, he’s been here since it began. It’s been good. Sometimes it sad, but sometimes it’s good. It’s been sad because I only got little parts, now I’ve got a big part! Haha.
I enjoy being a part of the theatre company. The way we learn is special, it’s hard and easy. It’s slow but eventually we progress. I enjoy performing, if given the correct crowd. I’ve done a school drama, Fiddler on the Roof. I’m not sure why people think I’m always a joker. Haha. Everyone is supposed to laugh, if they do they do, if don’t that’s ok too.
In this play I’m the teacher, the kaiako. I teach them a few words and phrases, like: kia ora, and ‘my name is’ – ko Kelly tokū ingoa. But learning doesn’t start at school, and it doesn’t always have to take place in the classroom. It begins in the heart and soul.
I have experienced racism. But never too much racism has been placed in front of me. It has become a way of life here. If you’re rich, you have one way of life. If you’re poor you have a different experience. But we shouldn’t accept the experience some poor people have in New Zealand.
This play is portraying people learning te reo Māori, people understanding what is good for them, and learning about ways to achieve a better way to live. The language shouldn’t be taught just to Māori. It’s for all of us. It should be taught to Japanese, Korean, Swiss, American.
The play has the power to share a Maori view of the world. We are all whanau. We can always be a part of each other’s life. This play can have a role in communicating that.
I’m not nervous. I wasn’t nervous the first time I performed at the Herald theatre so I don’t know why I need to be nervous now.