By Hayley Sproull
Directed by Jo Randerson
Taki Rua Productions
James Cabaret, Wellington | November 4-7
Watching Hayley Sproull’s Vanilla Miraka, I’m reminded of a conversation my Dad recounted to me between him and a Maori woman at his office. The All Blacks had the previous night played poorly, and the woman was complaining about the Maori and Pasifika players’ performance particularly: “Those bloody brown boys can’t pass a ball to save themselves.” Alarm bells ringing, and a confused mixture of colonial guilt and indignation turning in his stomach, my Dad (pakeha, male, and her employer) had exclaimed, “You can’t say that!” “No, I can,” she had said, “but you can’t.”
I’m reminded too of sitting through countless assemblies at my Christchurch private school, overheating in a woolen blazer and wincing as an endless procession of white staff begin their speeches with appallingly rendered Te Reo. To me it smacked of lip service, a limp ticking of the boxes, a quick nod to the ministry, knowing full well that among the whitewashed crowd of staff not one could actually speak the language.
That Vanilla Miraka brings to mind these stories is a measure of its success. It’s refreshing to be a part of a conversation not about Pakeha abuses of Maoridom, but which touches on the former’s faltering, well-intentioned, and often naive attempts to embrace the Maori aspect of New Zealand’s bi-culturalism. Cue bad speeches, vowel songs, and plastic tikis. It’s fertile ground for good-natured satire, and Sproull comes up with some absolute gems. You see, Sproull is a quarter Maori, “which is like, all of this part of my body. This bit would be brown,” she says, gesturing to her left arm and left half of her upper torso. She’s one-quarter insider, three-quarters outsider. She claims her dual perspective and lightly exercises her right to comment on Maori and Pakeha culture simultaneously (“those brown boys” and my “New Zealand European” private school experience) and I realise, as I feel myself physically relaxing, that rarely have I been to a show about being Maori that I, a white, privately educated Christchurch boy, can feel I am a part of, rather than a slightly anxious, respectfully solemn, spectator.
The show itself is a series of vignettes mixing stand-up, humorous songs (Sproull has recently returned from Edinburgh with her one-woman musical comedy act Miss Fletcher Sings the Blues), and short scenes recounting personal experiences. Her reputation as an accomplished comic musician precedes her, and Vanilla Miraka doesn’t disappoint. The song ‘Let me in’ demonstrates impressive wordplay dextrously sung, and perfectly orientates the audience to Sproull’s central concern. It’s nice too to see the piano incorporated in the reality of some scenes—at a Maori funeral in particular—and we get a glimpse of the interconnected roles of music and tikanga Maori in Sproull’s childhood. As a stand-up Sproull takes a moment to get the audience completely on side, but once she does she delivers some great routines. The itemised list of her Maori attributes versus Pakeha attributes is a nice moment, and she doesn’t shy away from letting the game lead her into hairy subject areas. I would say that Sproull continues the New Zealand tradition of awkward humour, except that, for the most part, the awkward moments stem from cringe-worthy cultural encounters which many of us can empathise with, and when she needs to be, Sproull can also be commanding, charming, and virtuosic.
The theatrically enacted scenes comprise the show’s most successful and least successful moments. I am engrossed watching Sproull’s trip to India as well as her Grandmother’s funeral, both of which contain delightfully sweet and entirely believable comic moments and important questions about one’s cultural and spiritual identity. Scenes set in Sproull’s kitchen (set by Nick Zwart) offer moments where she playfully engages with her Maori fantasies (sound by Matt Eller), boldly stepping into the grungy shoes of worn cliches, poi, wiri, and all, and pointing toward the way that Maori culture is often packaged and sold to the rest of New Zealand. These moments are both wrong and right, and I love them, but often they seem disconnected and insignificant next the longer stories of India and Sproull’s grandmother. The set needs justification, and games played with the sound-design can be pushed further.
By eschewing solemnity and reverence in favour of humour and lightness of touch, Sproull has created a piece well on its way to being properly poignant. Yes, we see the idealised Maori Wahine, but it’s an unattainable cliche. For the most part, Sproull grounds things in the comic trials and tragedies of the everyday in a way that speaks volumes to my experience as one of those eager-to-understand-and-desperate-not-to-offend Pakeha. Recommended.