Kouka won an Order of Merit "for services to contemporary Māori theatre" in 2009, and his play, Waiora, which was commissioned for the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in 1996, has been performed widely there, as well as internationally. Its central messages of family, displacement and a search for something that feels like home have struck a chord around the world.
When Waiora was brought back to the Court Theatre in Christchurch, New Zealand, this year, reviewer Charlie Gates said, "Waiora may be a play about the very specific struggles of a Māori family moving to the South Island, but it is so finely observed that it speaks to universal human feelings of belonging, yearning, crushed dreams and the importance of being true to your own heritage."
Waiora comes to Illinois State University this weekend, in a production directed by Kim Pereira, with a cast led by Thomas Russell as Hone, the father of the Māori family that moves from the North Island in New Zealand to a more urban life in the South. Brandi Jones plays mother Wai, Emilia Dvorak is older daughter Amiria, who embraces the city and its possibilities, Hannah Spohnholtz is younger daughter Rongo, the one in the family having the hardest time giving up on what they left behind, and Alex Levy takes on the role of Boyboy, the youngest child, who is like his father in many ways, but doesn't have an easy time following his lead.
On the South Island, Hone and his family are confronted by two "Paheka," which means they are not Māori, but white people of European descent. For ISU, Mac Byrd plays Steve, the owner of the local mill, who thinks Hone should dance to his tune if he wants to make it, and Emma Harmon plays schoolteacher Louise, who considers herself an outsider like her new pupils.
William Brown, Anastasia Ferguson, Anthony Harden, Cayla Jones and Chloe Szot form the Tīpuna, a group that is akin to ancestors or voices from the past, calling Rongo back to the old ways. (And that's Ferguson you see on the ISU Waiora poster above._
Waiora is certainly not a play you will have other opportunities to see locally, but its "fish out of water" characters, each reacting to change in a different way, should speak to anyone who has moved from a small town to a big one, migrated from one country and one culture to another, or struggled with assimilation as a way to move up society's ladder.
For more of a context for the play, I recommend this ten-minute video piece, which includes interviews with playwright as well as the director and several cast members from the first production of the play at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in 1996.
Waiora opens at 7:30 pm on September 30 at Illinois State University's Center for the Performing Arts, with performances continuing through October 9. Tickets range from $12 to $17 and they are available in person at the CPA Box Office, which is open from 11 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday, or by phone at 309-438-2535. If you prefer to do your ticket-buying through Ticketmaster, that's a choice, too.