Oct 23, 2023

Review of Arawhata

Arawhata 20 October

Arawhata Aftermath 21 October

Wellington Ballroom at Toitoi as part of Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival

Reviewer Rosheen Fitzgerald Images supplied by Arawhata

Queerness, in particular transness and drag, has been thrust into the spotlight of late – a political football to be tussled over in an increasingly polarised debate that serves to drown out the realities of queer lived experience. 

Arawhata is an antidote to all that. Made by queer people of colour, for an audience of everyone, this powerful piece of theatre gives voice to their real stories, charting their journey to empowerment through performance. 

It is a tale told in three parts, to my eyes. Repression. Redemption. Celebration. 

We begin in the depths of Te Pō. From the darkness a voice pleads for compassion, suspension of judgement, sanctifies the space as safe for the performers to be vulnerable in. Barefoot and neutrally clad, we meet our cast, running the gamut of race and body shape. All different. All beautiful.

A series of scenes, dripping with pain, brimming with authenticity, convey the challenges our cast face in just being in their own skin in a world where they are not accepted, where they are pushed to the edges. Intersectionality is explored. All the harder to be trans when you are also stymied by the colour of your skin, by a conservative culture, by being a refugee. Their pain is visceral, raw, wrought on their faces, in the contortion of their bodies. Spoken word voice overs drop like bombs, articulating their aching hearts. This is not easy watching. This is a show that makes you do the mahi to receive the treats. 

Then comes redemption. The path to power comes through community and connection with culture. In contrast to the shady displays we have come to associate with the ballroom style, here the cast wrap around each other in a blanket of love and solidarity that you can see and feel extends far beyond the confines of the stage. Drawn together by their collective marginalisation, they begin their healing by reaching inwards to the depths of their identity. Fa’afafine embrace their femininity with a delicate siva. Waiata and kapa haka, all originally devised by cast members themselves, empower and uplift. These impressive cultural performances are more than mere displays of considerable skill. They say, ‘I am here. This is who I am. I am proud.’

Finally, celebration. A bombastic explosion of what the audience probably came for. Queer excellence at its finest, brimming with confidence, style and breathtaking skill. There is an extravagant runway section, the cast fabulously clad, in juxtaposition to the opening scene. There are stunningly choreographed dances incorporating classic ballroom moves, executed to perfection, culminating in the dramatic dip. Performers flamboyantly throw themselves to the floor and pop up again and again. Just like queer culture. They take a lot of knocks but they won’t stay down for long. 

The audience is ecstatic filling the magnificent theatre to its vaulted ceiling with joyful noise. This show is an extremely important experience for many, particularly the rangatahi who intimately know the pain of growing up different in a small town. This piece is a beacon for them, a light at the end of the tunnel. At the curtain call a pair of young self appointed kaikaranga full throatedly tautoko the performance, giving voice to what many of us feel. There are tears on both sides of the stage. 

But wait, there’s more. The following day an open to all workshop, dubbed Arawhata Aftermath, is held, fittingly, in Toitoi’s ballroom. Led by co-directors of the show and mothers of the House of Marama, Romé and Karamera, a section of Hastings’ queer community and a handful of allies gather to get the lowdown, and perhaps receive some seeds to start a scene of our own.

The origins of Ballroom are acknowledged. It began as a safe space for queer black and Latino people in Harlem, New York in the late 1960’s. It gave them a place to play at being socially acceptable. Many left homes where they were rejected to create families of their own, both networks of practical support and dance crews to compete as a team. 

The Aotearoa scene kicked off in South Auckland, germinating on high school sports fields before blossoming into fledgeling events with families of our own. The Whare of Marama spend a lot of time crossing the motu to compete in our largest city. 

That they came together at a workshop just like this, a mere three years ago; that they devised the entire show themselves; that, for many, Arawhata’s debut at last February’s National Fringe Festival was the first time they performed on stage, is a shining inspiration to the aspirational rangatahi in the room. 

Kōrero concluded we get down to the mahi, trying our hand at just two of the many ballroom categories – runway and vogue. 

Runway is basically walking, but with confidence, sass, style and posing. Romé guides us gently through the basics then commentates – yells at us artfully over heart thumping music. The latter is a skill that needs to be experienced to fully grasp its power. With the magic of voice alone suddenly this is an event, a happening, we are made to feel important. 

Vogue is a more slippery beast. Silky limbed Karamera, utterly captivating on stage, educates us on the five elements of vogue. Hands (easy); floor performance (lolling around on the ground – anyone can do it but can you make it look good?); catwalk (get low, pop your hips and alternate your hands); duckwalk (oh god, my thighs) and dips (how can falling over be so hard?). With a lot of laughter and falling down he succeeds in teaching us a mini routine. Spirits in the room are high as we form a circle for the final throwdown, the opportunity for everyone to have a chance in the spotlight. 

There’s an atmosphere of elation in the room, similar to what was created by the performance. There’s a feeling that these rangatahi have found their people, have discovered the place where they belong. This is the gift of ballroom, and of the Arawhata crew. To take up space. To be seen. To be proud to be authentically themselves.

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