Review: A Baby Called Sovereignty – a koha, a wero, a celebration

Naomi van den Broek responds to A Baby Called Sovereignty, presented as part of the Off Centre Festival at The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora, Saturday 4 March 2023.

“We are not invisible, I know you see us”

Weaver of stories, people, themes and contemporary concerns, Juanita Hepi, gives us the koha of A Baby Called Sovereignty on Saturday night in The Gym at The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora. The work is a wero, a platform on which to celebrate Indigenous wāhine, a gently defiant alternative to “whitestream” theatre making and storytelling, a collaborative narrative featuring waiata, taonga puoro, poetry, memoir, performance art and more. It is a super-sized serving of talent. 

“Nothing on stage is fake”

The setting of The Gym is spare, just blacks and a centre stage catwalk thrust. Hepi introduces and mihis to each of her collaborators, who fill the back of the stage. This work is low-fi. Costumes are mostly black, there is no set, and props are minimal. The work is presented as a series of vignettes, featuring individual performers or small ensembles positioned on the catwalk: some in direct address, some singing, reading or reciting, sometimes supported or accompanied by the whole cast. 

“I am a ‘learning opportunity’ and I will still be here waiting when they are finally ready to learn”

A Baby Called Sovereignty, described by Hepi as ‘in progress’, feels like a natural second chapter to her work I Am Not Your Dusky Maiden, which was presented at Tiny Fest in 2021. Something about the in-progress element, especially, makes attending this performance like being invited into the best and realest family dynamic: full of aroha, nothing ‘put on’, but you are not going to be let off the hook here either. The performances are heartfelt, raw, confronting, funny, and beautiful. Some are deeply personal, as when Tiana Te Ronopatahi Moiha shares the story of confronting and protesting the devastation of commercial developments on her sacred mountain in Hawai’i. There are also more abstract moments. One, featuring Celina Nogueira, left me questioning if it was a commentary on how the bodies of Indigenous women are commodified and co-opted, or whether it was about the colonisation and destruction of land. Perhaps both, or neither. Regardless, all of the performances are powerful, all showcase the unique voices of the performers. 

“I want free parking for all natives”

In creating a space for herself and her collaborators to create and develop work, perform and share, Hepi has also made space for the audience – for those whose shared experiences will resonate, be uplifted, amplified and at times collectively grieved for, for those who want to see more faces they recognise in ‘theatre’ spaces. But this is also a space where tauiwi / pākehā audiences like me are welcomed to take up the wero: to honour and support the mahi and its makers, to be lovingly but unflinchingly reminded of our responsibilities as tangata Tiriti, and to celebrate and tautoko the incredible wealth of talent who call Ōtautahi home. 

“We are not invisible I know you see us”

Thank you to all the players for your talent and generosity. Ka nui te mihi ma te ngākau ki a koutou: Juanita Hepi, Mahina-Ina Kingi-Kaui, Kari Moana Te Rongopatahi, Tiana Te Ronopatahi Moiha, Celina Nogueira, Isla Martin, Tōmairangi Paterson, Manaia Edgeworth-Fraser, Gusto Mangakahia Tamerau, Waimārima, Anahera, Hinepuororangi, and Nixie Te Koha.

Image credit: Charlie Rose Creative for The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora

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