Dawn Raids by Oscar Kightley (Playmarket, Victoria University Press, 2017), 103 pp., $18
Twenty years on from its premiere in 1997, and more than 40 from the events it depicts, Oscar Kightley’s seminal play, Dawn Raids, continues to resonate – and perhaps for more than the obvious reasons.
The raids, a shameful episode in this country’s history, were initiated under the Labour government of Norman Kirk from about 1973 and carried out with renewed zeal by the National government of Robert Muldoon from 1975. They were aimed at finding and repatriating Pacific Islanders who had overstayed their work permit visas. The searches were typically executed in the early hours of the morning and were carried out by immigration officials and squads of police with dogs. Pasifika people were woken from their beds, randomly stopped in the street or singled out at their work places, and asked to show proof of identity and immigration status. Those failing to produce the requisite paperwork were deemed to be ‘overstayers’ and summarily deported.
These invasions were clearly ripe for dramatic treatment. With Dawn Raids, Kightley and the theatre company Pacific Underground heralded an incursion of a different kind: a quiet, insistent foray by young Kiwi/Pasifika artists onto the front lawn of New Zealand’s cultural landscape.
It may seem unlikely from the distance of 2018, but in the late 1990s a full Pasifika production with considerable snippets of Samoan dialogue on a New Zealand stage was rare. Mounting the 1998 production at Christchurch’s Court Theatre, then still a bastion of Eurocentric theatrical tradition, was nothing less than radical. Never mind that the play held the mirror up to, and squarely debunked, the popular and comforting myth of New Zealand as a society built on exemplary race relations.
By and large, Kightley and his collaborators were the children of the ‘overstayer’ generation: first generation Kiwi-Samoans, Tongans, Tokelauans, Nuieans, Fijians and Cook Islanders finding their way in a society at odds in so many ways with their parents’ traditions and cultures; or they were afakasi, the children of mixed marriages, like Kightley’s half-Samoan fellow playwright Victor Rodger (Sons, My Name is Gary Cooper, Black Faggot).
Notable individuals had made their mark in the arts here in the past: the estimable Albert Wendt with his early novel Sons for the Return Home and his story collection Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree; and the popular doo-wop trio, the Yandall Sisters, name-checked in the play itself, were singing superstars.
But with this play, Kightley and company arguably embedded a vigorous new strain of Pasifika cultural production and talent. While Victor Rodger, Makerita Urale (Frangipane Perfume) and Toa Fraser (No. 2) broke out on the stage, Kightley’s Naked Samoans and bro’Town brothers hit the screen; others like King Kapisi were making their mark in hip hop, and Selina Tusitala Marsh, our current poet laureate, and Tusiata Avia (of Wild Dogs Under My Skirt fame) rose in poetry. They were followed across the spectrum of disciplines by artists, writers, singers and performers such as Scribe, Ladi6, Courtney Sina Meredith, Rose Matafeo, David Mamea, James Nokise, Te Vaka and Tusi Tamasese, to name but a few.
Dawn Raids’ role as a bridgehead and beacon for this generation of Pasifika artists, and for Polynesian and Palagi audiences in New Zealand alike, should not be underestimated. Its influence reverberates down the years, which makes the work a particularly fitting addition to Playmarket’s New Zealand Play Series.
What of the play Dawn Raids itself? Granted, any consideration of mere words on a page is limited. Removed of its mise-en-scene, its dramaturgy and performance, lighting and sound design, the combustible physicality and weave of interacting human emotion, all conspiring to make that enthralling essence of theatre – a magical, mystical connection with its live audience – such an assessment can only be at most a dull outline of the produced play itself.
But just as Kightley spent months seeking contemporaneous accounts of the raids before writing the play, for a more contextual perspective we, too, can turn to eye witnesses. Of the original Auckland production in 1997, Leonie Reynolds said in the New Zealand Listener: ‘Dawn Raids has all the urgency and political weight of 70s agitprop theatre and some of the rawness as well. This is a story that needs to be told.’ John Reid, writing in the Press of the Court Theatre production a year later, described it as ‘a delicious piece of writing, a well-made play that keeps clear of the sermon or the plea’.
Dawn Raids tells the story of a Samoan immigrant family living in Auckland under the shadow of the eponymous raids. By day Sione works alongside his father Mose in a car assembly factory. By night he is Fabian, the Hawaiian/French/Italian singer in a band called the Noble Hawaiian Sabretooth Tigers. He dreams of making it big, of fame, fortune, a Holden Kingswood and a house in Ponsonby for himself and his fiancée, Fuarosa – who must stay at home indoors because she is an overstayer.
His sister Teresa, is a law student who, with her friend Bene, has joined the Brown Panthers – a thinly fictionalised version of the real Polynesian Panthers – an activist group determined to respond in kind to the heavy-handed tactics of immigration officials and the police. To`aga, the family matriarch, does her best to keep the domestic peace, while Steve, whose father is a good friend of Mose, is a Samoan police officer in the New Zealand force who must walk the line between loyalty to his job and to his cultural roots.
There are themes aplenty here. Intergenerational conflict and family dynamics play out particularly in the portrayal of the relationship between Teresa and Mose. Teresa is an independent spirit who knows her own mind, but in Mose’s eyes this amounts to disrespect for her elders, a clash heightened by custom, fa`a Samoa – the Samoan way. It is also part of the immigrant condition – the tension between integration and assimilation – and Kightley neatly explores this conundrum in the relationship: parents who want their children to succeed in the Palagi world in which they now live, but who cannot easily disregard or divest themselves of their own heritage; and a new generation growing up in a world that has little knowledge of, and even less regard for, other cultures, other histories.
While there is cultural dislocation and the discomforting process of adjustment to life in Niu Sila, the play is also specifically tethered to the socio-economic and political conditions of the moment. The rapid rise in immigration from the Pacific in the late 60s and early 70s was in large part a response to a requirement for manual and menial labour, in turn prompted by economic growth. When the downturn arrived and it became evident that not only had the needs of such a population been ignored, but many were now surplus to requirements, the tap was turned off. Getting tough on immigration was a major plank of Muldoon’s and National’s successful 1975 election campaign. In a terrible indictment of political expediency and the policy settings of the time, the direction of travel was reversed in blunt and traumatic ways.
This much is evident and is at the confrontational heart of the play: the inhumane and frightening treatment of Pasifika immigrants, with lack of regard for due process and dignity, allied to the inevitable racist sentiments it encouraged.
This is where Kightley’s skill as a writer and dramatist comes into its own. He approaches a potential conflagration not with the accelerants of anger and resentment, but with self-deprecating irony and at times laugh-out-loud humour. It’s an approach that scores the underlying points all the more effectively.
Naming Sione’s band the Noble Hawaiian Sabretooth Tigers is of course faintly ridiculous, but there is pathos and portent in Kightley’s method. Throughout his career he has slyly put on the fool’s hat to provoke reflection and insight. Here we get truth and revelation. In an oblique insinuation of that old saw ‘they all look the same’, he has Sione justify the Hawaiian routine in terms of Palagi people not knowing the difference, and ‘cos nobody likes Samoans’. It’s also a dramatic shrug towards an immigrant reality: you sometimes have to pretend to be someone you are not, to get ahead.
On measured occasions the humour is more overt. A scene in which Bene and Teresa in their full Brown Panthers regalia target an immigration official’s house with loud hailers and search lights, only to be told he doesn’t live there, is comedy gold.
Two decades on from its Christchurch production, this play is as relevant as ever. Immigration, housing, joblessness and poverty remain social and political touchstones. It is hard to disagree with the playwright as he notes in his Foreword to this publication that, when it comes to identifying the causes of social ills, immigrants are as much an easy target as they ever were.
Oscar Kightley’s Dawn Raids is an entertaining and satisfying antidote to such facile attitudes, and the publication of this landmark play is a timely reminder of the enduring power and importance of theatre.
SIMON CUNLIFFE is a Wellington-based writer, editor and advisor. His play The Truth Game, an affectionate valediction to traditional media mores and prescient anticipation of ‘fake news’, was performed at the Fortune Theatre, Dunedin, in 2011, and at Circa Theatre, Wellington, in 2012. He spent five formative childhood years in Samoa.