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This play will make you laugh – and challenge you – at the same time

Jason Te Kare, director and star of Cellfish. Photo/Supplied.

Cellfish, a dark comedy play touring New Zealand this June, asks people to confront a system that is failing Māori.

What makes a criminal? Are you really that different from someone in Paremoremo?

Director Jason Te Kare poses these questions in the play Cellfish, to help people better understand a serious issue in New Zealand: Why Māori people are over-represented in prison.

The play, which is touring New Zealand after a sell-out season in Auckland, is based on Shakespeare Behind Bars, a real rehabilitation method used in the U.S which had massive success in reducing reoffending. In Cellfish, a fiercely determined woman, played by Carrie Green (Bless the Child), goes into a New Zealand men’s prison to teach inmates Shakespeare.

Created by Miriama McDowell (Waru), Rob Mokoraka (Shot Bro) and Te Kare (I, George Nepia), it was born out of frustration with state systems and the repetition of negative statistics about Māori in the news, says Te Kare.

“It began with a kaupapa around the systems that fail Māori and it just so happened within the prison system there are many who have been failed by the different systems – mental health to social welfare, family services... so many of the services that are supposed to be helping Māori are in fact failing them.”

“At the moment all we’re doing is saying 'they’re bad people, let’s lock them away'. It’s an old, old system.”

Te Kare says it’s clear rehabilitation programmes, like Shakespeare Behind Bars, are more effective than traditional punishment but it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around – the play shakes up this notion.

“Especially emotionally for victims of crime, you feel they [offenders] need to be punished for what they have done, but at the end of the day, is that going to make our society better or worse when they get out? Because inevitably they get out.”

“There’s so many myths about good guys and bad guys, and it’s easier to push people away and say ‘that’s not me’. The thing we’re really trying to do is bring what they [the audience] think is far away from them and bring it close to them, and make them see themselves, or parts of themselves, within these men.”

Many of the inmate characters are familiar to Te Kare – his mother ran a halfway house in Glen Innes for kids who got caught up in state systems.

“I’ve got a real personal connection to these characters because they remind me a lot of those kids I grew up with in our house.”

He says people will be surprised at what they laugh at in Cellfish.

“Yes, it’s about these deep, major issues, but it’s a good night out, it’s a good laugh, it’s good soul food. You laugh, you care, you feel frustrated, you see another side to people, our society.”

At the same time, it delivers a punch, says Te Kare.

“You’ve got to find a way to deliver messages that makes people listen and not just shut off."

He credits Taika Waititi for opening up this style of comedy.

"When you look at Two Cars, One Night, it’s really easy to see it as just kids mucking around in a car park but when you look at the deeper undertones of three kids waiting for their parents at the pub in the car... that has never overpowered the comedy.”

“The whole time through the play we balance that quite finely, there’s a lot of humour, a lot of laughter, a lot of good times but it’s always on a knife edge, there’s always a moment of danger so you’re never fully free of that moment.”

Just two people – Te Kare and Green – play all the characters, adding to the complexity of the play.

"So the changing from character to character is done physically through the actors’ abilities. That's what I call the magic of theatre, when you can create this whole world just using two people, some lights, some sound."

Cellfish, presented by Taki Rua in partnership with T.O.A – Theatre of Auckland, is showing in Wellington, Christchurch, New Plymouth, Hamilton, Whangarei, and Palmerston North, various dates between June 6-29. See here for tickets.