New Zealand critics and audiences in 1903 hailed Tapu (by Alfred Hill and Arthur Adams) as the harbinger of a new ‘national drama’. They thought that the comic opera captured the national essence and would broadcast the nation's advantages to a global audience. Yet the production never made it beyond Sydney, and has since disappeared from the historical record. My analysis of the script and critical reception shows that Tapu faltered in its confused adoption of a wide array of techniques of racial mimicry (borrowed from metropolitan theatres) to represent indigenous Māori and white visitors, but not the native-born settler population. The story of Tapu's failure, I argue, reveals something about the transnational conditions for the constitution of a national public sphere, and the indispensability of race as a supplement to that nation. It attunes us to the force of performance genre and repertoire as vehicles of racial information and affect, pointing to the ways in which conformity, rather than invention, was the ticket to success in the emergent global culture industries. If popular performance, and specifically racial mimicry, operated as a public experiment with the racial properties of citizenship – as a generation of scholarship on race and performance has argued – to what extent was that experiment controlled by the conventions of the global commodity market? This essay reaches insights that will be of interest to scholars of (trans)national performance history, settler whiteness and global indigeneity, and is germane to disciplinary debates on minstrelsy, ethnological show business, and cultural appropriation.