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Bringing Real Issues to New Audiences

Nina Nawalowalo is used to being part of groundbreaking creativity - she’s entering new territory with a confronting topic.


I talked with internationally acclaimed and award-winning director Nina Nawalowalo ONZM about her radio play A Boy Called Piano.  The much-anticipated sequel to the acclaimed The White Guitar; it’s the harrowing but redemptive story of Fa’amoana Luafutu.  He was one of thousands of Māori and Pasifika children placed into state care during the 1960s in New Zealand, only to endure violence and abuse.

The co-founder and Artistic Director of one of New Zealand’s leading Pacific theatre companies The Conch with husband Tom McCrory, Nawalowalo and I are at opposite ends of the North Island. She’s in her hometown Wellington, while I’m perched on a kitchen stool in Auckland waving hello at a screen over Zoom. 

Finding her calling

Descended from Fijian and British roots, there’s a regal air about Nawalowalo, as she articulates passionately about her journey.  Sports driven as a youngster, she played basketball for Wellington before going on play NZ Under 20s and NZ under 23s - at that stage having not ventured anywhere near a performance space - the direction of her future seemed obvious. 

That’s until the young Nawalowalo was introduced to mime at Wellington Teachers’ College. “We had a fantastic lecturer Robert Bennett, it captured me. I thought, I’m going to do that.” Nawalowalo began taking classes that marked the shift, eventually studying theatre in the United Kingdom and then onto Italy to study mask.  Form, she emphasises, is what she returns to as a director making theatre, time and time again.  

Our discussion turns to the visually exquisite offerings her company has produced consistently in its almost 20 years. Nawalowalo’s area of expertise lies in conceptualising how to visually present her company’s works. The highly acclaimed Vula (Fijian for Moon), inspired by a trip back to Fiji with her then-ailing father, the late Ratu Noa Nawalowalo, explored the sensual and spiritual relationship between Pasifika women and the sea. The impact of employing elements of nature such as water and rain, state-of-the-art lighting, a musical score by composer Gareth Farr, (its original cast included Fiona Collins, Tausili Mose and Susanna Lei’ataua) left audiences mesmerised. The show went on to tour internationally throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.  

“My real interest is how one presents a story.”

Nawalowalo comes back to directing A Boy Called Piano required that same challenge - how would the story of young Māori and Pasifika children being taken from their families be told visually?  

The production would combine physical storytelling, stunning AV design with live music composed and performed by pianist Mark Vanilau. Receiving wide acclaim during its first outing in 2019, festivals readily programmed the play for 2020.  

Except we know what happened in 2020.  The Covid pandemic unfolded, lockdowns ensued and performances were postponed or cancelled.  

The sound of social change

But what initially looked like defeat turned into an opportunity. The Conch with its instinctive agility pivoted, and A Boy Called Piano Piano (first performed at the development BATs season and co-directed with Jim Moriarty) has been adapted into a radio play, with support from Tour-Makers and Radio New Zealand, as well as being made into a documentary (Nawalowalo’s first foray into the medium) that’s currently in post-production.  

Radio New Zealand’s Standing Room Only broadcast A Boy Called Piano on 2 May (here is the link).   The first scene opens in an Auckland courtroom in 1963, the 11-year-old Piano as Fa’amoana Luafutu is affectionately known (after his mother’s love for the instrument) about to be sent to Owairaka Boys Home, the trajectory toward a life of dysfunction and despair set; going in and out of the system, from youth correction facilities and eventually to prison. The radio play carries an extra layer of authenticity given the script was written by Fa’amoana Luafutu and the 8-strong cast are made up of three generations of the Luafutu family. 

Nina Nawalowalo listening to the recording of the radio play. Photo: Supplied.

Nawalowalo takes on a solemn tone as she talks of Fa’amoana Luafutu’s courage to step back into that period of his life and revisit those earlier traumatic years, his determination as a creative to come back into the light, toward his redemption. “It’s been an absolute privilege to have the trust of Fa’amoana.” 

Using theatre as a force for social change underpins the kaupapa of The Conch, and A Boy Called Piano is very much a call to action says Nawalowalo, its undertaking addresses the need to bring real issues to the stage, given it’s not an easy story to tell.  

Fa’amoana Luafutu and sons. Photo: Supplied.

“It gave Fa’amoana the courage to honour his friends, as we know, a lot of those men are dying now, they haven’t had full apologies from the government.”  

Hitting close to home

In bringing such seminal stories to the surface, there’s a possibility that the reach and power of story through theatre will have far greater impact than the current Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse In Care investigating stories like Fa’amoana Luafutu’s. 

Audiences will gain an insight into the lived experiences of men like Fa’amoana Luafutu let down by a myriad of systemic failings.  Nawalowalo points to the importance of also engaging with families that have children in the corrections system, about identifying maemae (pain) and patterns, with a focus on healing. 

The radio broadcast offers the opportunity of both reaching a greater audience and also finding a new audience. “Many, many listeners never come to a play like that,” says Nawalowalo. “Now they’ll have a window into something that is not part of their world.”  

Such is the power of theatre, to viscerally move and influence its audience, that in experiencing Fa’amoana Luafutu’s story, assumptions may shift and debunk stereotypes, hopefully creating a real demand to address social inequity.

The story of A Boy Called Piano and its prequel The White Guitar are rooted in the first wave of migration from the Pacific during the 1950s, Fa’amoana Luafutu arriving with family from Samoa, his parents hopeful of the opportunities from the promised land. 

Fa’amoana Luafutu recording the radio play. Photo: Supplied.

Except he would languish on the periphery of New Zealand society; without the language, accessing education was all but impossible for Fa’amoana Luafutu. The resources to wrap around children of migrants would not arrive in schools for several decades, while at home only the heritage language was in use. Meaning a large cohort of migrant youth were alienated from family and school communities, gravitating toward others like themselves - those who shared a similar experience, ushered into an urban Lord of the Flies phenomena. Until the authorities deemed they were ‘out of control’ and Fa’amoana Luafutu, like thousands of other Māori and Pasifika children, was taken away from his family, made a ward of the state… the very notion that a government could successfully parent a child through youth detention residences like Owairaka Boys Home. 

“The courage of Fa’amoana is that his story speaks directly to those who are still caught up in the system,” says Nawalowalo, referring to the peers and descendants still trapped in a pattern of continuous offending and serving prison sentences.  “He’s speaking directly to men still inside, who haven’t been able to escape… because he’s already come to that decision… to release something and bring it back into the light.”  

As well as finding his own redemption, Fa’amoana Luafutu is, by example, leading survivors back toward the light.  “We have to be brave, we have to create the pathways for people to keep going,”’ Nawalowalo says of her willingness and commitment to stand alongside survivors. 

Making a difference

Nina Nawalowalo.

There have been many accolades for Nawalowalo, receiving the Contemporary Pacific Art Award in 2007, the Senior Pacific Artist Award in 2017 and the following year appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her contribution to theatre and Pacific culture.

 But she shows the depth of her journey as an industry leader remarking that success is often seeded in trying out things that don’t initially work. “If you don’t go through failure, you won’t find other ways of doing things.”  

We finish with my praising Nawalowalo on such an impressive and exceptional career, and providing a format for our Pasifika stories to shine.  I’m teasing that given her talent, her middle-class upbringing and education she could have, if she chose to, opted for the easier path. As a creative, it’s an exciting but challenging path attempting to finance productions and at times putting bread on your own table. 

She’s laughing as I say she could have easily had that life of genteel comfort, without the edge that making great art brings, going on tour, the relentless pursuit for resources, rehearsal space, equipment etc.  Nawalowalo responds by talking about her love of theatre, the importance of passing on her knowledge and working with incredibly talented people like husband Tom McCrory.  

Then there’s her upcoming production next year, a play about women, her face lights up and its obvious there was only ever one path for this trailblazer.