BLACK TIES | ILBIJERRI Theatre Company & Te Rēhia Theatre

Image by Yaya Stempler

Kane and Hera are in love and want to take their relationship to the next stage but marriage will mean confronting the families they’ve been avoiding and the long list of expectations their relationship doesn’t meet. This cross-Tasman collaboration brings together a Māori and an Aboriginal family for a major culture clash.

Structured in two acts, John Harvey and Tainui Tukiwaho’s script first sees the couple, and their loveable hangers-on, in two overlapping timelines of visiting Hera’s (Tuakoi Ohia) Māori family in Aotearoa/New Zealand before flying to see Kane’s (Mark Coles Smith) Aboriginal family in Melbourne. Neither meeting goes entirely to plan as both Kane and Hera encounter their respective future mothers-in-law protective threats.

What hangs over this couple’s heads is the immense pressure of doing right by their families and cultures in continuing their heritage with someone from the same background. Putting an Aboriginal family history up against a Māori family history illuminates painful differences between the colonialism and genocidal treatment of First Nations people in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Attempts at discussion or compromise made by Kane or Hera only seems to drag forth a nasty competitiveness between the families, each swearing themselves to have the better culture, stronger heritage, or deeper colonial wounds.

Harvey and Tukiwaho’s script at times treads lightly and at other times clumsily through these delicate and nuanced cultural concerns but direction from Tukiwaho and co-director Rachael Maza achieves a level of vulnerability that reveals the characters’ self-consciousness and pain. For example, Hera’s father’s (Tukiwaho) gruff facade and criticism of Kane’s absent father hides his shame and embarrassment about abandoning his family years before. Ironically it’s Kane’s Uncle Mick (Jack Charles) who steps in to stem the habit of anger running from Robert on to his kids. In this moment Uncle Mick encourages the two families to share their pain and find a way to heal through their stories, rather than compete.

The production design including lighting from Jane Hakaraia, audio visual from James Henry, and sound from Laughton Kora featuring a live band (Kora, Brendon Boney, and Mayella Dewis) is ambitious. From the large set by Jacob Nash for the first act with a natural rock design and projections of Blue Mountains scenery, Aotearoa/New Zealand forest-scapes, and busy Melbourne streets, the integration of digital and organic mediums gives the production a uniquely modern feel, like bringing a 2020s family sitcom to the stage. The second half was something remarkable, though, as the audience returned to the theatre to see it had been transformed into Kane and Hera’s wedding reception complete with confetti, two bars, and Robert’s expert MCing.

As far as performances go, Ohia and Smith are sweet as the central couple with both a fierce conviction and powerful naivety about their marriage. Sylvia (Lana Garland) and Ruth (Lisa Maza) as the families’ matriarchs are headstrong and smothering, coming out swinging at any instance, but their tough exteriors belie difficult pasts that deserved more attention. Tukiwaho and youngest daughter Tama (Tawhirangi Macpherson) were crowd favourites for their cheerful banter, and Macpherson proved a diamond in the rough when given her chance to sing at the reception. Otherwise Charles additionally provided a consistent cheeky charm whether live-streaming his antics or lulling the crowd with the trials of dentures.

Overall, BLACK TIES is a wild, over-the-top story about the joining of two wild, over-the-top families. At times underdeveloped moments and messy dialogue with dropped lines and awkward pauses threatened to derail the proceedings, but the production’s honesty allowed the rough patches to read as authentic family mishaps and misunderstandings. It would be difficult to find an audience member who didn’t leave Kane and Hera’s wedding reception smiling, warmed by being welcomed into this new whanau/family.

BLACK TIES is running at Sydney Town Hall from January 10th – 18th as part of Sydney Festival

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