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Review: ‘Dawn Raids’ is not to be missed

Dawn Raids is a play about a Samoan family living in Auckland in the 1970s.  It is a time of prejudice and oppression. Homes, pubs, and even workplaces are searched by police seeking immigration overstayers. The people they target are the ones who ‘don’t look like Kiwis.’ In other words – brown people. Being caught without a New Zealand passport when out and about can be dangerous. 

But this is not a story that is filled with violence and anger. Sure those things are there at times, but in fact, this play is about so much more. 

At first, it almost seems as though we are watching a sitcom. The first scene is in a bar. Sione (Michael Falesiu) is a young good-looking singer with a melodious voice and endless cheesy charm. Using the stage name Fabian, he belts out romantic songs and tries his best to channel Elvis Presley. 

Later, at home with his family, almost every line gets a laugh. Sure there are arguments, generational misunderstandings, and sibling rivalry, but on the surface, they are all good-natured – the perfect, loving family. 

Mose (Lauie Tofa) the head of the family is the clown, cracking jokes and mocking his children for their choices. Teresa (Talia-Rae Mavaega) is his daughter, a firebrand and activist hell-bent on changing the system and eager to take on the authorities. To’aga (Bella Kalolo-Suraj) is the matriarch, very witty, and trying her best to bridge the generation gap between her husband and children. While she’s mostly quietly spoken, when roused she is formidable.

Lastly, there is Sione’s fiancé Fuarosa (Gabrielle Solomona). Quiet, naive, and desperately wanting a family life. She is also an overstayer. 

As the play progresses, the tone changes. The laughter continues, but the tension rises. We see the insidious effects of racism. 

Mose is hiding deep anger and an almost pathological need to be respected and to work hard and blend in. His drinking brings a certain jolliness, but the anger and violence are not far beneath the surface. His desire to assimilate and not be judged by society means he detests the overstayers and the negative spotlight they bring to ‘good hardworking people’ like himself. 

It is obvious colonisation has affected the younger generation too. Sione pretends to be Hawaiian on stage and won’t sing Samoan songs. Both he and Teresa speak English and not Samoan because their father wanted them to ‘fit in.’

When the ‘raids’ finally happen, it is like being slapped in the face. We’ve seen the family argue, but this is different. The sitcom has turned sinister. It is ugly, brutal, and chilling. 

This family we have come to know and like has been violated. The fun returns, but the raid has left a stain on the family, and things will never be the same. The ending is hopeful. While there has been grief and sadness, the future looks better. 

Kightley’s intention with Dawn Raids was to make people laugh and show a normal human family so that when violence intrudes, it is all the more shocking. The comedy eases us into the truths that have, in the past been unpalatable. 

What is clever about this work however is that it looks inward as well as outward. The institutional and systemic racism that led to the raids was despicable. But Dawn Raids also subtly tackles racism, sexism, and even domestic violence within the Pacific culture. 

Mostly though, it shows us how a society based on oppression and prejudice affects everyone and that darkness seeps into every facet of life. 

That is illustrated so well with the Pacific and Maori police officers caught between the system and their own people. And, sadly, it also throws light on the collaborators, those within the community who supported the raids, and actively used the system for their own benefit and to exact revenge.

Even though Dawn Raids is set in a time some forty-odd years ago, and the play itself is 25 years old, it still feels fresh and relevant. Kightley’s writing is splendid, the cast is superb, and this is a production that is not to be missed. 


16th August – 3rd September 2022


Watch and interview about the show here:


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