James Nokise Digs into New Zealand’s “Ridiculous” Gang Culture on the La MaMa Stage

Playwright James Nokise — a former gang member — is making his U.S. debut with "So So Gangsta," a blend of theatrical lecture and stand-up comedy, as part of the New Zealand Performance Festival at La MaMa in NYC.

Throughout the month of March, 2015, La MaMa in New York City hosted the New Zealand Performance Festival, for which they invited some of New Zealand’s most innovative performers to bring their acts stateside. James Nokise was one of those artists, making his U.S. debut with “So So Gangsta” — a comedic theatrical lecture about gang culture in New Zealand — which press materials describe as a blend of “personal stories, research and current affairs.”

Extended Play’s Tommy O’Malley spoke to Nokise about the investigative nature of his theater work, as well as the ways in which he tailors “So So Gangsta” to the various international communities in which he has performed it.

Nokise was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1982 to a Welsh mother and Samoan father. His experiences growing up mixed-race in an officially bicultural country — as well as his time spent in a youth gang — give him special insight into the material covered in “So So Gangsta.”

As he got older, Nokise fell off the gang track and became more serious about performing. When he was 20, Nokise performed at the New Zealand Comedy Festival and spent a couple of nights drinking with older comics from around the world — including American Lewis Black. “It was just a kind of shooting the breeze that you go, this is the fun part,” he said. “I could do this as a career.”

Nokise’s career has so far taken him from his native New Zealand to Australia, the U.K. to New York. “So So Gangsta” may mockingly engage gang culture, but Nokise is quite clear that urban youths are not the intended punchline of his jokes. Of his approach — which marries traditional theater and stand-up comedy — he explained, “You don’t pick on your peers. You look at the high people, and you try and make them look ridiculous.”

TOMMY O’MALLEY: When you were conceptualizing “So So Gangsta,” what inspired you to focus on gangs, and how do you imagine this work will play to a New York audience?

“I was a youth gang member for a couple of years. I was in the New Zealand Bloods… It’s exactly like the American Bloods, but it’s a really crap version.”

JAMES NOKISE: I was a youth gang member for a couple of years. So I was in the Bloods. The New Zealand Bloods, I should point out. It’s exactly like the American Bloods, but it’s a really crap version… The gangs in New Zealand are just as violent, but it’s on a per capita. So it’s relative to the amount of people that we have. We have 4.2 million people in New Zealand. You got like 12 million in New York. So this one city is three times the size of New Zealand’s population. But statistically, for New Zealand, the Māori, the indigenous people, make up 50 percent of the prison population. Which, you know, we’re talking about multiculturalism, that’s like a really bad way to be bicultural.

TOMMY: What portion of the population do the Māori represent?

JAMES: About 13.5, 14 percent.

TOMMY: It’s reminiscent of the incarceration rates of black people in this country. And it seems like — based on things I’ve read in preparation for our talk — black American culture very directly influences the culture — including gang culture — in New Zealand. Was that true of your experiences as youth gang member?

JAMES: Yes, yes… And so what we did was, we watched “Blood In Blood Out,” “Colors,” and we decided, like, that’s what we wanna be like. That’s how we’re gonna be tough. Everyone played basketball anyway. Red was the best color, because Michael Jordan.

It was all that early-90s, when all the hip hop culture was breaking internationally. Basketball was breaking internationally. And we just absorbed that and used it for empowerment, in the same way that our parents’ generation has used the Civil Rights movements and Black Power movements for empowerment in New Zealand.

And that’s kind of what I do in my show, I talk about how New Zealand’s known basically for the All Blacks, and Lourde, and “The Hobbit.” But we’ve got this massive amount of racial tension that sort of underlies all of that. And so I take audiences for a history of New Zealand, and then go into the gangs, how I got into the gangs, and just take them through a list of all our gangs, and sort of highlight how ridiculous they are if you actually stop and look at them.

And then, I start to talk about — in New Zealand and Australia especially — about how political parties and media moguls act like gang members, act like gangs themselves. In New York I’m still trying to pluck up the courage to — I have a theory that the police are beginning to act like a gang in New York, and in America in general. But that’s an outsider’s view of the actions. That way of disregarding public opinion — “We know best. We’re gonna do what we’re gonna do, and you have to live with it.” That’s a very gang mentality. But I don’t know if I’m brave enough to be an outsider in New York saying, “Hey, I’m pretty sure your cops are acting like gang members.” Then again, maybe it’s a lot easier to say that because I’m an outsider. I won’t know until the time in the show comes to do the material, when I decided to either cut it or say it.

TOMMY: You’re writing new material specifically for New York?

JAMES: Yeah, yeah.

TOMMY: So you’re adapting your play for an unknown audience in a city, a country, you’ve been in for less than 24 hours. I can see how that would be daunting. What is that adaptation process like?

JAMES: Generally I just research history, talk to people. The best history you get I often think is from people in a community. So a lot of what I’ll be doing in the next two days is just picking people’s brains about New York. ‘Cause comedians, you gotta figure out what your audience is, what the mindset of the general audience is.

In Australia, I went and talked to a lot of social workers and people who work with indigenous people. Because where I was in Western Australia, they have the highest indigenous incarceration rates in the country. It’s 40 percent for indigenous males, 78 percent for indigenous young males, which is insane. And they really — for me Australia was interesting, because they were less afraid of their politicians, and more afraid of Gina Rinehart, who’s the richest woman. She owns the mining companies in Australia, and you say her name, and you feel everyone’s ass just, like, clench up, going, “Don’t do it, mate. Don’t do it. She’ll find out. She’s too powerful.”

In New York I don’t quite know who the powerful people are yet. In comedy, I always think you punch up. That’s the rule. You don’t pick on the people below you. You don’t pick on your peers. You look at the high people, and you try and make them look ridiculous. So you know about your Donald Trumps, and you guys over here know about old Fairfax Media — Fox, you know, Murdoch and all that. But I’m like, “Who’s the people in New York?” Who are the names in New York that I drop and people go, “Ohhh. I don’t know, man.” ‘Cause that’s the great thing about comedy, is that you can drop those names. A comedy room’s like a safe environment to make fun of those people without there necessarily being repercussions.

Yeah so that kind of stuff’s really fascinating to me. ‘Cause maybe it’s the police here, and that will be doing something new with the show. Because in New Zealand it’s the politicians. In Australia, it’s the media moguls. It will be very interesting to find if the people New Yorkers are most frightened of — of making jokes about — are the cops, in terms of talking about race relations and that kind of stuff. Especially because I’ll be primarily probably performing to a white middle class theater audience.

I just did the New Zealand fringe festival and made a show which was specifically aimed at that audience. Suckered them all in, and then did a solo piece basically telling them off for talking about Pacifica — because that’s one thing they do in New Zealand — they just go, “Uh it’s a Pacifica thing.” Like the entire Pacific Islands are just one place, when in fact it’s 700 scattered islands… You gotta stop thinking of it as just one place and one people. It’s many different people. And if you can’t get your head around that, then you just need to take a step back and think about the way you’re thinking. I’ll be interested to apply that to New York, ’cause right now, I think of New York as just one big place. But clearly, there’s different sections, different histories, heaps of different cultures.

James Nokise in "So So Gangsta."

James Nokise in “So So Gangsta.”

TOMMY: Have you ever encountered any resistance because of your tone or approach?

JAMES: People got scared when I make fun of gang members in New Zealand, like TV producers and all that got scared.  They were like, “I don’t know if you should do that material on a televised viewing. And I went, “Well, yeah, it’s fine.” Like, no gang member is gonna end up in jail going, “A comedian told jokes about me, so I beat them to death.” Like, that’s a really dumb — you don’t boast about that. And it’s all about boasting. It’s all about being the man.

TOMMY: If the people you’re encountering are reluctant to share, how do you go about capturing their stories? Do you record them?

JAMES: I absorb and make notes. So I don’t record like this. I just absorb and make impressions. I find that works best, so that when I’m presenting something, it’s very much my voice that comes through. I’m not repeating someone else’s voice. I’ll, like, make something as a direct quote, but I try not to have too many voices in my head putting these show together.

There are some times I record people — if it’s an actual gang member, like a gang leader or something like that. Then, or like, someone who’s got direct experience, where I go, “Oh, I need this as archival. Like, I’m gonna refer back. I’ll be six months down the road, and I’m gonna need to refer back to this.” But if it’s just the average person — like, say I’m in the library, or say I’m in a restaurant or somewhere like that. I’m just having a talk while I get a coffee or something. I’m not gonna go, “Wait a second,” and pull out my phone. Recording devices can be pretty, you know —  you want it to be a very natural, kind of over-the-counter convo. ‘Cause then they’ll say something more real.

TOMMY: So what’s the takeaway for you as a performer and writer, having prepared this work and performed it around the world?

JAMES: It’s easier to take a media perception and not investigate it yourself. So people go, “Gang members are bad.” And you go, “Yes, gang members are bad.” And you go, “Why are they bad.” And they go, “Because they do all these things.”

“And how many gang members do you know?”

“I know absolutely no gang members.”

And I think it’s the way people always go, “Be afraid of this thing.” And it’s all this culture of fear. And I always think that the way that you lift that culture of fear is through trying to understand things. Not necessarily accepting them, I’m not asking people to go around and hug a gang member. I’m just saying, don’t be scared of someone just ’cause of the way you look.

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