Jim Moriarty talks about The Battalion, Jake Heke, The Lifestyle versus whanaungatanga, and how theatre and Tino Rangatiratanga can empower all New Zealanders.
“I want the audience to leave the theatre totally uplifted and overwhelmed,” Jim Moriarty told me about his Once Were Warriors musical in 2004, gesturing passionately. “Beth standing up and saying to Jake ‘No more. We’ve had enough.’ Ending domestic violence. Beth herself is taking her family out of that darkness and into the light, that’s a metaphor for all of us.” The production illuminated the restoration that needed to take place for Aotearoa repealing Section 59 of the Criminal Justice Act. “If I laid a hand on you could have me for assault, but if I smacked my child it’s called reasonable force. It’s absolute nonsense. The most vulnerable sub-culture in society, the most marginalised, the most dependent on love and care, is the one we’re legally allowed to abuse the most.”
In the early 90s, Once Were Warriors’ producers were keen on Jim Moriarty playing Jake Heke. Moriarty declined to audition; he couldn’t do it and stay committed to the Te Rakau’s mahi (work). “I would have let a whole lot of other people down, I don’t like doing that.” Ten years later Moriarty directed and starred (as social worker Kahu Bennett) in Te Rakau’s stage version. The National Business Review raved: “A massive show in every sense… raw, rare and vitalising… Moriarty has rediscovered the true meaning and purpose of musical drama and inspired his team to deliver a remarkable result.”
In 2006, while establishment hacks like Chris Trotter boorishly criticised Section 59 campaigners, called for their “failed bill” to be withdrawn, The Strength of Water’s father continued his potent korero. “It’s gonna be repealed,” Moriarty told me, speaking with a quiet, (Moana) Jacksonesque authority. He campaigned with organisations such as Women’s Refuge. “Most other civilised countries in the world have tossed it out. And not to the detriment of a parent’s right to guide their child successfully along the path of discipline growing them up. It’s about empowering people to find alternatives to using violence, better parenting programmes.”
Catching up with him to mark this year’s Waitangi Day, Moriarty remains passionate about Tino Rangatiratanga. “Tino Rangatiratanga still means what it’s always meant to me. The right of the indigenous people, the Maori of Aotearoa, to have access to the resources as they were identified in the Treaty, and to have a say in the management of those resources in perpetuity, for the benefit of all.”
Moriarty (Ngati Toa) argues the Treaty is for everyone. “We need to wise up as a nation and realise that the Treaty is in fact the only document, not just on behalf of tangata whenua, but all New Zealanders, that will protect its wholesale bloody distribution to the highest bidder from somewhere else in the world, to absentee landlord ownership and state asset sales, that’s what we’re getting a lot of.”
“When that fine line’s been crossed where your personal space has been invaded by those you love in such a way, then as your life goes on it isn’t so hard for you to cross the boundary either.”
He remains artistic director of Te Rakau, working with at-risk communities, creating and performing theatre in marae and prisons, as well as conventional theatres. The Battalion—opening Tuesday night at Victoria University’s Studi0 77—a highlight of Putahi Maori Theatre Festival, will convey the power of art to transcend difficulty.
Moriarty and his wife Helen Pearse-Otene—who wrote The Battalion— say they are putting it on again to contribute strategically to this inaugural Wellington Maori theatre practitioners’ initiative. “This is part of our long term strategy to establish a national Maori Theatre and performance venue here in Poneke. We chose to perform The Battalion in order to include rangatahi in the festival; our kaupapa for theatre is that it belongs to everybody and if we don’t nurture the next generation of practitioners and audience members then it is to our detriment. We feel the same in regards to Te Reo Maori, that it belongs to every New Zealand child as their birthright and needs to be spoken by us all if it is to survive, which is why we are running a grassroots Kapa Haka programme in local schools.”
The play tells the story of World War Two’s 28th Maori Battalion, and two troubled young Wellingtonians who stay with one veteran in the country. “Never ceases to get the puku going,” a kaumatua said after an energetic, engaging and intimate 2007 Newtown performance. Ruia taitea kahikitia te Wairua no tuawhakarere (lest we forget) is one message.
The effects of violence are Moriarty’s daily bread. “A lot of the work I do is with at risk rangitahi teenagers and that, kids from ten onwards. And I’ve worked in the male and female prison systems. Most of the people I’ve worked who are presenting with problems in terms of society today, are people who have come from violent family backgrounds, and that’s a correlation that stacks. If you’re taught violence as a norm that’s how you behave. When that fine line’s been crossed where your personal space has been invaded by those you love in such a way, then as your life goes on it isn’t so hard for you to cross the boundary either. When you cross that line with a child you’re creating a problem, not only for that child, but for society and anyone else who encounters that child along their life’s journey.”
Manaki (hospitality) is important to Moriarty. Interviewing him at least four times over the decade, he always listens to my questions attentively, and tends to offer kai. “I come from a family with eight brothers and sisters, there was always whangai, there was always people staying. Mum and Dad were truly those big, generous, open-spirited, whanaungatanga people, so it’s not hard for me, it’s not a foreign concept. What else are we here for? There’s only so much food and drink you can eat on your own, and you can only drive one car at a time. You know, people. I like people.”
He diagnoses The Lifestyle’s problem. “I think one of the things about the world we live in is that it’s going at a hell of a fast pace, we are constantly being pressured to consume. Consume this, consume that, consume the other thing. If you get caught up into too much of that consumption stuff your life becomes about paying for the toys that you purchased as a consumer and less about spending time with your family and the people you love. We all get caught in that trap to some degree or other.”
“What a hell of a thing?” Moriarty (Ngati Toa) says of the soldier’s experience. Paying tribute to the 28th’s courage, connecting young people with their whakapapa, The Battalion “is a war on abuse and dysfunction.” Though he acknowledges the disturbing violence in New Zealand today, that people need to be kept safe: “We need to keep our rangitahi out of jail.”
Stopping violence, healing, and emancipation have been themes throughout his career. “I got into theatre as a young boy in the 60s, they were the sort of final, glory days of the Maori Theatre Trust. I got into a lot of grass roots theatre in the 70s. It was pretty didactic stuff but you had to do it, it was Treaty driven theatre mainly. I’ve always come from a political position. I identified early on that my own particular strength in relation to what I could do to enhance Tino Rangatiratanga and Mana Maori was to use creative stuff. So what I’ve done is I’ve remained true to that calling. I produce theatre, I direct theatre, I perform in stuff, and it’s all really to do with the emancipation of people, freedom and liberation of people. All the work I’ve done with Te Rakau is along those lines. All the theatre I’ll continue to do in the future will be about using theatre as a tool for change.”
How can theatre affect that change? “By the nature by which you construct it firstly. That can bring about a huge change for the participants in the process and also the way in which you then present it and work with communities. I always try to have forums post performances so that people can discuss how they’ve been affected by the production. When I create theatre, I create theatre not just with individuals but their families and create a new family. So it becomes if you like a metaphor for better communication among people fullstop.”
Moriarty argues New Zealand took a wrong turn in the 80s. “There are a huge lot of economic factors that influence the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. That was essentially about the so-called market forces, the monetarists, and that money was supposed to trickle down. Well it didn’t trickle down, it just kept trickling up. The fall out—the major fall out—was the social fall out. The prison populations increased, the suicide rate increased, unemployment increased. It’s bullshit.”
“I use theatre as a tool for change as a way of helping young people unravel the stuff that’s hurt them so it doesn’t have power over them anymore.”
Moriarty, who also works in the mental health sector, asks Maori to stand up and take responsibility to stop the violence against children in Maori communities. “Maori traditionally were not violent to their children. Part of that was the whole Christian-Judaeo system, that whole belief in some Christian writings, ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ And the missionaries and the churches bought that stuff. Children were a valued taonga, they were a treasure in pre-European Maori society.” He’s staunch about the negative effects of colonisation. “Maori had their language and their culture base basically bloody legislated out of existence.”
But he remains optimistic. “The good old Kiwi’s a pretty resilient bugger in the main. Governments need to reempower people, reemploy people, redeploy people. Because people are the core unit of exchange in any economy. And if they’re feeling pretty lousy and shitted off about the world they live in, they’re not going to contribute to the economy. What I do with theatre is to get people well, so they can get out there in the marketplace and do stuff.”
2014, the exceptional musician Mara TK tells me Moriarty inspired him out of his raggedy Christchurch hood. “Jim rolled into Christchurch in the late 90s with a crew of super-charged Maori actors to facilitate school kids—myself and others from local kura kaupapa—to express ourselves through theatre, to write, to socialise, and broaden our scope of experience outside of the four suburban blocks that was our universe. I have to thank him massively for that.”
“His passion drives Te Rakau,” then Te Rakau manager Alicia Conklin told me in 2006. “The kids, they respond to him. He has that X-factor. When they wouldn’t respond to anyone else. Trust. His non-judgmental approach. Truly showing love. Some of them have never experienced that.” Playmarket Director Mark Amery was another enthusiast. “Powerhouse devisor and actor whose whanau-fuelled approach to making theatre out in the community has taken Maori and Pakeha theatre community values out there to people in a way more professional theatre should. Enormous heart and spirit. An impressive history of projects, which have helped train and develop an impressive number of theatre practitioners. A key figure in the arts. Give him a laureate award now!”
It was satisfying to be awarded New Zealand Order of Merit, but Te Rakau offers richer rewards. “Hell yeah! Some of the most astounding outcomes for me are the ones that an audience would possibly miss. When people repatriate with their family when they’ve formerly been at odds, and they’ve reintegrated back into their families and communities in a healthy, strong way.
“It’s when you know that you’ve helped to add your bit to the journey of that young person’s life in terms of them being able to make sense of the dysfunction and hurt, so that they can move on from there. I use theatre as a tool for change as a way of helping young people unravel the stuff that’s hurt them so it doesn’t have power over them anymore. Then from people’s shared stories graphing that up in creative language. For me it’s about using theatre as a tool for political change, a transformational, transitional tool, helping people to make more sense of the world they live in, and about the choices they can make about what’s happened to them and what happens in the future.”