The Auckland Performing Arts Centre (TAPAC) | May 12-22
Nga Manurere is a song of the heart. Playwright Renae Maihi has drawn deeply on her experiences as a young solo mother to write her first play, and the result is a challenging, insightful—and ultimately joyous—rendering of a little-discussed part of New Zealand culture.
The story follows Manawa (Nicola Kawana), a thirty-something woman who, having made a life for herself in Auckland, is called back to her marae in Hokianga for the tangi of her mother. Her mother’s dying gift is Manawa’s son Morehu (Rhys Castle-Hughes), now sixteen, who has grown up knowing only that his mother abandoned him at birth and fled the marae. At the urging of his Great Uncle Rongo (William Timothy Davis), whom he has known as a father, Morehu reluctantly goes back to live with Manawa in Auckland.
Understandably, it’s awkward between mother and son as they get to know each other. Kawana gives a dignified and moving performance as a woman who yearns for the son she does not feel she deserves, yet is unable to tell him what he most wants to know—who his father is. The web of unspoken secrets surrounding this family is what gives the play its tension.
Supporting (and sometimes obstructing) Manawa is her ‘flock’ of friends—all of them negotiating their own stories as single mothers. Jess, Wai and Rina all show different facets of solo motherhood. Wai’s story will be familiar to many—she’s in love with a man who’s moved on to the next girl—and worse, she’s left looking after their young son. Sera Henare does a convincing job of portraying Wai as both funny and tragic—her lack of knowledge of Maoritanga being a recurrent riff through the play. Jess, one of the more outwardly ‘successful’ of the mothers as she seems to be competent in both the Pakeha and Maori worlds—makes a decision to give up her son to concentrate on her career. This is contentious for her friend Rina, in many ways the most traditional of the mothers—who has vowed to look after her son even if it means denying herself career and income.
Maihi has captured not only what it means to be a mother, but also what it means to be young and Maori. Jess, Wai, Rina and Manawa each have differing degrees of engagement with Maoritanga, but all of them show a pride and interest in being Maori. This is a play that looks forward, rather than back to the past.
The men are also strongly written and played. William Timothy Davis, a vereran Maori actor, lends his considerable mana to the role of Uncle Rongo, both father and grandfather to Morehu. Rhys Castle-Hughes, in his debut professional theatre appearance, gives what is arguably the most powerful performance of the night as a teenager struggling to come to terms with the loss of the woman he loved most in the world—his Nana. As he copes with a confusing palette of new experiences in the city, meeting his mother and her gaggle of friends, every reaction is etched on his face—yet we also see the walls come up. His flashes of sudden anger, his stony rejection of his mother—give poignancy and realness to Manawa’s plight.
The action takes place on a sparse, formal set consisting of white walls, white chairs and a few props. The cast are dressed mainly in black, though flashes of red become more prominent later in the play. The lighting similarly deals in a few simple colours—blues, reds and white. This simple colour scheme serves to enhance the emotions in the play while not detracting from the complex storyline. It also provides an appropriate backdrop for the formal elements in the play—the waiata at the start and finish, the karakia during the tangi.
Although there are a few moments where the pacing could have been tighter, this is a well structured, well written play that draws its audience in. On opening night there was a feeling of collective catharsis as the play neared its climax, and a number of hastily wiped wet faces as the lights went up. Nga Manurere is a play you will want to see again.