Rowley (later Rore Hapipi) has passed. A generation is passing. Rowley, Lebanese father, Maori Mum, was the first writer for the current Maori theatre movement. His dad was a shopkeeper in a small village near Taupo, part of the early Lebanese diaspora (the Lebanese have been called the Jews of the Arab world), but both parents died when Rowley was a child. He went to Te Aute College on a scholarship, then to teachers college, but had started to write so dropped out of the teaching game. He married and had kids and worked at all sorts of jobs, before ending up in Wellington. He was mates with Don Selwyn and observed the success and demise of the Maori Theatre Trust, a Pakeha-led venture seduced by patronage and spectacle.
With the 1975 Land March occurring and much talk of Tino Rangatiratanga, Rowley saw that there wasn’t a Maori theatre voice. He waited in vain for someone in the theatre world to do something and then decided he had to fill the gap. Jim Moriarty, Brian Potiki, Tungia Baker and Keri Kaa among others were around and Rowley got them together. He decided they had to start small.
He’d come across the transcript of a Maori Land Court case and was struck by the contrast between the Pakeha judge’s legal talk and the Maori family’s story of the land. The group, calling itself Te Ika a Maui Players, began devising a play based on the transcript. Eventually Rowley wrote it down and called it, Death of the Land.
Jim was also in the theatre group, Amamus, which I directed and when we put on Oedipus (a play about Pakeha guilt), we invited Te Ika a Maui to join us in a double bill at Unity Theatre. Bruce Mason wrote a favourable review and offers began to come in. Death of the Land played at marae, churches, universities, the Maori Writers and Artists’ Hui, even in Paul Reeve’s living room. It was community theatre, with a strong message.
The actor who played the Pakeha judge couldn’t make it for a performance at Waikato University, so I was roped in. It was a stereotypical part and it was uncomfortable playing the villain of the piece. We set off for Hamilton in a van and somewhere near Taihape picked up a young Pakeha hitchhiker- a broken sort of person with mental health issues. He was accepted without question by the group and invited to stay with us in Hamilton where we slept marae style in a lecturer’s lounge. That weekend, I witnessed whanaunatanga in action.
Amamus had been doing a series of plays exploring Pakeha identity, discovering along the way the fascist core of colonisation, so this experience stayed with me on all sorts of levels: political, cultural, personal, emotional… Later, in a Samoan village, I would have to confront the essential alienation of individualism.
Death of the Land was recorded for radio and Rowley wrote a couple of TV plays before he returned to prose writing and was awarded the Menton. But through his vision a Maori theatre movement had been launched . As he said to me in an interview a few years ago, ‘I’ve never thought big, I think small – and I was right.’
Ahakore he iti he pounamu (although it is small it is greenstone).
Rowley, thank you for what you were and for your gift to our culture.