by Ian Anderson
Mo & Jess Kill Susie is a play about differences that can’t be resolved. The slogan announces it’s about “Three women, two guns, one room, no way out,” and the title tells us what will happen onstage. The question then becomes; who are Mo, Jess and Susie?
Gary Henderson wrote Mo & Jess Kill Susie in 1996, a hostage drama in which two Maori nationalists kidnap a white police officer. As the play begins, Mo & Jess await orders from their comrades. Unfortunately, the play sets up a false dichotomy, reflecting paranoia rather than objective conditions. The original play was set in the year 2000. In the intervening years we’ve seen a sharp ramp-up in police repression, while Maori nationalist tactics hardly warrant the title of “terrorism.” This production is set in 2014, and its vision of the future has not changed since 1996.
Fortunately, Henderson’s characters are well drawn and the production is uniformly excellent. A special shout-out goes to Thomas Press for his moody lighting & sound design, at once naturalistic and expressive. The performances are also top-notch. Cian Elyse White consistently holds attention as Mo, a Maori nationalist student. While White is a commanding presence, churning out fiery rhetoric in jumpers and jeans, Juanita Hepi and Antonia Bale give excellent slow burn performances. In particular, Antonia Bale’s Susie spends much of the play asleep in a blindfold – when the police officer beneath the blindfold emerges, things really start to heat up.
But Jess, perfectly played by Juanita Hepi, is the lynchpin of the piece. Coming from more of a working-class background than Mo, Jess says she is “Not here because of some theory.” Her husband lost his job, got into a fight and came back from jail a changed man – this system of exploitation and oppression has torn her family apart, and she feels a certain amount of guilt for that. Despite these grievances, Jess is a restrained character; Mo tires herself out as only a student can, while Jess fills out a crossword. Of course, she’s the one to watch.
Ultimately, Mo and Jess have more in common than they’ll ever share with a police officer. Over the course of the play, as the three women recount their experiences, it becomes increasingly obvious that Susie’s experiences do not match up with those of Mo & Jess. Police officers are trained to keep the working class in check. In the wake of dispossession by capitalist settlers, Maori are overwhelmingly working class, and suffer the double-burden of racism. There is no peaceful way to resolve this conflict between dispossessed Maori and police officers. This production gives that dynamic an added edge with references to Tūhoe, who reject the Treaty as a colonialist document.
Despite reservations about the portrayal of Maori nationalist tactics, which step well into the realm of fantasy, this is a compelling hostage drama with a sharp political edge. Catch it if you can, it’s only on a couple of weeks.
Mo & Jess Kill Susie Written by Gary Henderson
Directed by Murray Lynch
Starring Cyan Elise White, Juanita Hepi & Antonia Bale
Production Manager: Anna Drakeford
Lighting & Sound Design: Thomas Press
At BATS Theatre Wellington 7-23 January 2010