Battlefields of Europe a backdrop for tale of whanau bonding

By Dionne Christian

Hone Kouka's Tu has a cast of 10.
Hone Kouka's Tu has a cast of 10.

Hone Kouka's latest play, Tu, inspired by Patricia Grace's novel of the same name, is a tribute to brotherhood. Kouka, who also wrote the plays I, George Nepia, Waiora and The Prophet, has renamed two of the characters after his own brothers, Philomel and Boydie, who, in the book, are Pita and Rangi. Although large parts of Tu are set during World War II in Wellington and on the battlefields of Monte Cassino, his family's experience of having a son and brother in the armed forces - Boydie was in the SAS for 20 years - helped him adapt Grace's novel.

"I saw the look on Mum's face when she heard Boydie was going somewhere like Iraq or Afghanistan, so I could more easily imagine how the family in Tu experienced similar news. It means that for a lot of our people, the sorts of scenarios described in Tu are still happening."

Like the novel, the play crosses time zones to start long after the final shots of World War II were fired, although the echoes are still felt by brother and sister Rimini (Erina Daniels) and Benedict (Matu Ngaropo), who want to know more about their whanau.

They head to Te Tairawhiti, on the North Island's East Coast, to find their reclusive uncle Old Tu (Tammy Davis) who decides to tell the story of his young self Tuboy (Kimo Houltham), his brothers Philomel (Jarod Rawiri) and Boydie (Taungaroa Emile), and a woman named Jess (Aroha White).

With a cast of 10, the play was workshopped in Wellington and Gisborne in 2010, allowing Kouka, who also directs, to refine the script and the staging. When Tu premiered at the International Festival of the Arts in Wellington last year, Patricia Grace and her family watched.

"Pat put a lot of trust in me. When I asked for her permission, she told me to just go ahead and do it because she knew and liked my work. She just wanted tickets to opening night. It was very scary knowing she was in the audience because the play is not the book on stage. She told me afterwards she thought it was beautiful even though it was not the same story as the novel and she respected the elements of the story that I chose to emphasise."

Actor Taungaroa Emile has been involved with the play since its first readings. Emile, who made his film debut as Boogie Heke in Once Were Warriors, is now a 37-year-old father living in Whanganui, juggling acting with work as a contract labourer for councils and private works companies.

His workmates, he says, think his other career is slightly hilarious, but if there's one show he would like them to see, it's Tu. He says it makes us all think about whanau, responsibility and what it means to step up and take charge of one's life.

"The sad fact is that young Maori males aren't often seen in a positive light and we're not regarded as good fathers or good husbands or good brothers who care for one another," he says. "Tu does a lot to change that perception by showing a different side, by showing - especially to young Maori men - that there are positive characters and stories that might inspire them to think about other ways of being, other ways of doing things." Tu was restaged in Wellington this year and comes to Auckland with a cast that also includes Tina Cook, Kali Kopae and Scott Cotter.


What: Tu
Where and when: Q Theatre, to July 27

- NZ Herald

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