Oscar Kightley was Jack Tame’s guest on Q + A last Sunday — and they talked about Oscar’s play Dawn Raids and why he wrote it 25 years ago, the kind of meaningful compensation that should’ve accompanied the Dawn Raids apology, handling criticism as a Pacific artist, climate change, Pacific geopolitics, and running for the local board. This is an edited transcript of their talanoa.
Jack: Take me back 25 years. What was the New Zealand attitude to the Dawn Raids at the time you penned this play?
Oscar: No one talked about it. It was something that happened in the ’70s, that maybe bled into the ’80s. But it was part of our history, and like so much of New Zealand history, it’s like it’s happened. There were no docos about it. There was no social media, for a start.
I thought that by writing something on the Dawn Raids and putting it out there in the form of a play, maybe that would start some discussion. It seemed like such a heavy thing to have happened in our recent past. And no one talked about it. And so I thought maybe the play might do that, but it didn’t.
Nah. The play was only performed in Auckland and Christchurch at the end of the 1990s, so the fact that it’s coming back 25 years later, maybe New Zealand is ready to talk about it now. There’s been the apology. There was the Panthers series recently. There has been more awareness from young people. And also a general “waking-upness”, socially and politically.
Back then, people thought it was a work of fiction, you know? That these Sāmoan actors were just putting something dramatic on.
But there was no attitude towards it. There was no one discussing it. There was no one feeling bad about it. There were no politicians admitting wrongdoing. It was something that mattered to the Pacific community — Sāmoan, Tongan, Fijian, mainly. ‘Cos we were the ones who were deported. We just had to deal with it on our own as a bad memory. And that’s why I wanted to write it.
Just how prominent were the Dawn Raids in your life and the experience of your community?
Huge. I was four when I arrived in this country and they were on. And even though I was only a little kid, I heard about them at the time. It was just this really yuck thing that was happening that was affecting the air outside your house, that affected the attitude towards you from non-Sāmoans, non-Pacific people. So we knew about it.
When we tried to ask our parents about it, they wouldn’t want to talk about it. You know, ‘cos they came here wanting to add to this country and contribute. And bringing up something so awful seems like being a bad guest, you know?
But now we’re more than guests. We’re part of the population. We’re part of the landscape, part of the country. And maybe only now is the time when, with the apology a year ago, maybe only this is when all that stuff had to happen.
Now New Zealand history, including the Dawn Raids, is going to be taught in schools. They weren’t even teaching Māori history back then. They weren’t teaching about the New Zealand Wars back then. So I feel that the increasing awareness of tangata whenua and the past and things that needed to be discussed and righted, I think that has helped shed light on things that happened to other communities as well.
You talked about “waking-upness”. What role have you played in that?
No matter what’s been going on in New Zealand, we’ve always had artists who contributed, who talked about things. Even in the ’90s, which politically was such a weird time with that weird ’90s National government, and there was no support for the arts, there were still artists making work.
I only learned about Sāmoa’s struggle for freedom from New Zealand as a 21-year-old. And I was like: “What? Does this happen?” And then this [the Dawn Raids]. So I was an angry young man, very sensitive, very intense.
All my friends in our company wanted to tell stories about us growing up, because it felt like we were invisible. This was before all the stuff that we now take for granted. The internet had only just started.
We wanted to make a noise. We wanted to say: “We are here. We’re part of this country. And these are some of the things that it would do you well to know, as well.”
What did you think of the apology?
It was important. I was there. It had to happen.
How did it feel — hearing those words, watching that scene play out?
It was emotional. It was quite beautiful, especially the symbolic way they did it, you know, with the ifoga, with the fine mat being placed over the prime minister. And in the moment that we all picked it up and lifted it, that was us accepting the apology.
Whether you accepted it personally or not, it didn’t matter. In that moment, when we lifted that off her, that was the Sāmoan community going: “Okay. We accept your apology.”
But the raids were so insidious, and they had such a horrible effect that still carries on now. They were such extraordinary times that I think an apology requires extraordinary compensation. There should have been pathways for overstayers. Pacific overstayers have been living in fear for years — there should be pathways for them [to be legitimised]. And I would have liked to have seen that. Not just a million dollars for young people to learn about the raids.
A lot of your work over the years has used humour really effectively. It’s interesting to contrast a play like Dawn Raids with something like bro’Town or Sione’s Wedding. Have you found humour to be a more effective vehicle in getting your message to a big audience.
Yeah. Totally. I spent a year working on Dawn Raids. It meant so much to me. It was really for older Pacific Islanders. That’s the audience I wanted, but also young ones, to tell them what happened.
It was an intense time, and it just about ended me. I couldn’t write for a year. I almost gave up. I changed my approach after that. I was like: “Man, Pākehās don’t like hearing this stuff when it’s presented on stage as truth.” So after that it was like: “Stuff doing this serious stuff that people might get the wrong idea about. I’m going to do comedy.”
But the comedy ended up being about serious stuff. It wasn’t like: “I’m going to do comedy about nothing that matters. I just want to make people laugh.”
Did you ever worry that your comedy might overstep a line? Did you ever worry about things like stereotyping or characters that might end up having some sort of a negative impact on your communities?
I didn’t, really, because that whole thing about stereotyping came from others. They look at your work and they add the label “stereotype”. I look at the work and I see characters that I knew and played, that we developed from real people we knew and lives we knew. So I’ve never worried about damaging my community. I feel like I’m telling stories about things and people I know.
I would never compare any of us to the great Billy T, but I remember seeing him in an interview saying he was hurt when people said that his characters were stereotypes because to him they were people he knew. He didn’t sit in a room and go: “I know. I’ll do a Māori sheep shearer in a black singlet and make him talk like this.” He was playing characters. We’d never seen those characters before on screen.
I guess I just wondered if it was a tension that that you are aware of, as a writer and as an artist.
Yes. I’m aware of it ‘cos I always get asked about it.
And I hate having to defend it, because I don’t think other artists get asked the same thing, you know? Why can’t Sāmoans write plays about characters that are real people. Why do non-Sāmoans go: “Oh, you’re stereotyping”? You know what I mean? Everyone can watch The Godfather and know that not all Italian Americans are in the Mafia.
Why does our stuff have to be a documentary that has to reflect absolutely every aspect of our community? They’re just stories. Dawn Raids is a play about this one family’s response to the Dawn Raids. And bro’Town was about a group of teenage friends growing up in the city, being surrounded by less-than-ideal adults and role models, but still finding a life through it.
It annoys me that our stories get that sort of pressure on them. It’s the same with Māori stuff.
No one watches The Simpsons and goes: “Oh, Americans from that part of America aren’t all simple folk.” No one thinks that. It’s about this family called the Simpsons.
And I hate that our stuff gets that lens applied to it, that it can’t just exist as a story about some characters. It’s like we make one thing and it has to somehow represent all of us when it can’t possibly do that.
I remember a course I went to by this L.A. script guru. We were working on a bro’Town movie, and I asked him a question. “How do you make a local movie a success globally?” And his answer was: “You make it as specific as possible to the local culture.”
Because of authenticity?
‘Cos of authenticity. If you try and write something that’s broad because the author wants you to learn something important, [it’s going to flop]. That’s another word I hate. “Important.” “Come and see this important work.”
The audience should judge what’s important. I think as artists, all you can do is tell the stories with heart and truth and as much authenticity as you can muster. So the comedy in Dawn Raids isn’t to make it palatable. It’s to reflect the people, the characters.
You talked about reparations before, and I wondered about one particular issue when it comes to the Pacific at the moment. I’m starting to see conversations around the bleakest of scenarios with climate change. We interviewed the Tuvalu foreign minister a few weeks ago, and he was telling us how in his country the conversation is very much moving to a place where they’re discussing what nationhood means if they don’t have a physical landmass that is inhabitable.
And I wondered if you had a position about the role that Aotearoa should play in the coming decades, if indeed we face the worst case scenario when it comes to climate change, and the responsibility that we have to our Pacific neighbours.
I think we do have a responsibility. It’s interesting with this whole geopolitical struggle over the Pacific. I feel like New Zealand and Australia treat it like it’s a place we go for holiday. And now that all these big powers are jostling for position over who has more say in it, we’re getting more involved and more concerned, which I feel is quite patronising.
Sāmoa is 3000 years old — way older than New Zealand. These are sovereign states. And we treat them like little kids who need help with their homework.
I think New Zealand definitely has a role. You can’t colonise as much of the South Pacific as we did, you can’t have that relationship with the Cook Islands with Tokelau, with Niue, a special relationship with Sāmoa, and then be hands-off when the biggest disaster that is hitting us is unfolding.
That’s an interesting question you raise, about what happens when the islands aren’t habitable. When we get to that part, when all of Tuvalu has to leave and settle in Australia and New Zealand. When there’s no physical bit of land. No tūrangawaewae. I think that’s an interesting question, and I think New Zealand has a huge responsibility. We were desperate to be a colonial power. We can’t pick and choose when we’re family, you know what I mean?
Sixty percent of the Pasifika population of New Zealand were born here. Just through that link alone we have an obligation. And I don’t think, politically, the Pacific community would ever let New Zealand not feel that obligation.
You’re running for a local board. Are you a sucker for punishment?
Henderson-Massey Local Board. I think I am.
Why do you want to run?
I want to help. I want to serve. Henderson-Massey has a big Pacific population. It’s never had a Pacific Island member. It’s 2022. I’m always banging on about Pacific people getting involved, voting and standing. So when I was asked, I kind of felt the need to put my body where my mouth is. I can’t just be all talk.
But it is a part-time job. It shouldn’t be a full-time cushy position. It should be a thing that you do in addition to how you already serve your community. And I’ve always been interested, ever since I was a cadet reporter and got sent to cover council meetings that I thought would be as boring as anything and weren’t.
I was like: “Wow, these people make these decisions. That dude in the suit, like, runs the city?” So as a journo I learned a lot about the world and New Zealand and it was just something that was always in my head that if I ever did do something it would be at local government level.
Oscar talked with Jack Tame on last week’s Q + A. Dawn Raids is on at the ASB Waterfront Theatre in Auckland from August 16 to September 3.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.