Beyond the headlines
Aroha Awarau says his latest theatre work is a testimony to the strength of mothers when dealing with tragedy and grief.
The journalist and playwright tells Dione Joseph about the real story of an accidental police shooting that inspired his fictional play, Officer 27.
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In 2009 Halatau Naitoko, a teenage courier driver, was accidentally shot and killed by police on Auckland’s north western motorway.
“It was one of those incidents that you clearly remember because of where you were in that moment,” he says.
“My nieces and nephews were down from Taupo and they had just texted me to say they were at St Lukes and on their way back into the city. Ten minutes after the text I heard the news there was gunman in that area and a few minutes later I heard that someone had been shot.”
Fortunately Awarau’s family were safe (though not answering their phones threw him into a tizz) but when he found out an innocent person was shot and it was a 17 year-old boy he was struck by the enormity of the tragedy but also its proximity.
“A child had died and his mother was an image of strength and dignity – and that really resonated with me."
His background as a journalist gave him the opportunity to meet with the mother of Naitoko, Ivoni, and he vividly recalls the openness, trust and eventual friendship that grew between him them over time.
“I was a voice piece for the rest of the world and she trusted me with her story,” explains Awarau. “The second time it made the news again was when the focus was on the compensation she received and once again she was open to me having that conversation with her.”
Although Awarau never thought it would be a play, he knew there was a much bigger story that needed to be told.
“After almost 10 years as a journalist it was a common theme that I had seen so many times,” he says.
“Pacific Island mothers had the same story: ‘we need to be strong for the family and we need to suffer in silence’ and as result there was a huge proportion of our women who were being consumed by grief and depression.”
This was the bigger story that inspired Awarau to create Officer 27, a fictional story of how a Niuean mother-of-seven devastated by the loss of her son disappears into a deep depression. A silence that could only be broken when she met the man who took her son’s life.
He does admit that showing Ivoni the final draft was nerve wracking.
“I wrote it last year and it was a finalist in the Adam [NZ Play] awards and when I decided to put it on I approached Ivoni and let her know I’ve written this play. I just wanted to go through the right process because, although it’s not about her, it was inspired by her and there was a lot of information that I was privy to because of our friendship.
"And admittedly, a lot of the information in the play is public knowledge because it has been published but at the same time it came from a source - and it’s been hugely important for me to acknowledge that.”
Ivoni’s blessing on the play has given Awarau and his cast a second wind and as the final week of rehearsals sets in they are excited and humbled as they prepare for their opening on September 22.
“This story is in memory of her son and in some ways its kept his memory alive,” Awarau explains. “She’s honoured that her story and her son’s story have inspired a creation of art that people are talking about and the conversations continue. That’s what's important, that she sees this work as a testimony to her strength and the strength of so many other mothers who deserve support through these tragedies.”
Contrary to expectations Awarau doesn’t delve into the politics of the event, focusing instead on the mother’s grief. He says, “I could have made this play into a court case drama or a political statement about police in action or the police response, but this play is about a family dealing with tragedy and I’m leaving the politics aside - someone else can tell that story.”
Officer 27 remains true to Awarau’s style and content. His debut production Luncheon focused on academy award winning actresses in Hollywood; with his latest work he explores grief and depression within the Pasifika community. His upcoming plays too are vastly different.
With a stellar cast and crew backing him one thing clear: this Maori/Niuean playwright and journo refuses to be pigeon-holed. His theatre focuses on surprising, questioning and engaging with audiences, simultaneously defying any expectation of what he ‘should’ or shouldn’t write.