Theatre preview: Manawa a play with heart

Jamie McCaskill and Natano Keni in Manawa. Photo / Supplied
Jamie McCaskill and Natano Keni in Manawa. Photo / Supplied

In Maori the word manawa means "heart" and Manawa, the new play by Jamie McCaskill, aims to show that criminals and lawyers have one too.

The drama premiered in Wellington last month with positive reviews and now Auckland theatre goers have the chance to enjoy it.

Manawa is the story of Wellington prison inmates Jimmy King (played by McCaskill), New Zealand's youngest convicted killer who is now in his 30s, his cell mate Mau Vaiaga (Natano Keni) who is inside for killing and eating a native bird, and their ambitious lawyer Waimanea Huia (Kali Kopae) who is defending them.

If the character of Jimmy King might sound familiar, that's because McCaskill's inspiration for his character was Bailey Kurariki, convicted of manslaughter at the age of 12 for his role in the killing of pizza delivery man Michael Choy.

At the time that tragedy unfolded, McCaskill was working in Wellington as a social worker dealing with troubled youth, and he closely followed Kurariki's stories in the media.

Although Kurariki's story inspired the show and its main character, McCaskill says it wasn't so much about him, but about the justice system.

He also wanted to use the play to explore other themes and provide a reflection of New Zealand society, such as the media and race relations.

Those themes are conveyed in the character of Mau Vaiaga, a new Samoan migrant, who has been jailed for committing a crime out of ignorance - killing and eating a kakapo.

Mau Vaiaga, portrayed by the media and talkback hosts as the "worst criminal in New Zealand", shows the absurdity of the justice system as his sentence is longer than King's.

Natano Keni, who plays Vaiaga, describes his character as a quiet unassuming guy from the islands who just wants to work hard and start a new life but has made a mistake and is being punished for an act considered quite normal back home.

McCaskill says that Natano's character brings out the worst in New Zealand's underground racism with talkback radio fuelling it.

"Natano is a character who has done a minor crime and the New Zealand public get up in arms because he's an immigrant and he can't do that here," he says.

The prisoners' lawyer, Waimanea Huia, played by Kali Kopae, is an up-and-coming Maori lawyer who is only defending these two clients to raise her profile and further her career. Huia has to juggle career and obligations to her iwi who funded her through law school.

McCaskill focused on the authenticity of the characters in Manawa, especially Huia and Vaiaga, as a great deal of effort was made by the actors to make them as real as possible.

Kopae referred to her lawyer friends to check the language they spoke, but admits her character is just a little exaggerated for drama.

"I watched YouTube and talked to my lawyer friends as I want to show the air of
professionalism they have. But they say in real life they're a lot nicer," she says.

Keni, who grew up in a Samoan home in Wellington, mimicked the language, accent and mannerisms of his own father and grandfather. "My character speaks 'Freshlish' and my mum said I reminded her of my dad when she saw the play," he says.

McCaskill initially wrote the play for an audience who share his views on the justice system but based on feedback from some viewers, it has provided food for thought for people who differ. He says by giving the audience a "behind the scenes" look at a
criminal and based on his experiences with troubled youth, he knows that deep down there can be a good person beneath the hard shell.

"I wrote this originally to preach to the converted but it's provoking to people who think the opposite ... you see behind the camera the real person and I wanted to make these characters likeable."

He guarantees that by the end of the play the audience will see a good heart in all of the characters.

What: Manawa
Where and when: Basement Theatre, to November 3

- NZ Herald

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