Theatre preview: Ladies who lunch

By Dionne Christian

Aroha Awarau's first full-length play, about five female Oscar nominees in 1958, has attracted a stellar cast and director, writes Dionne Christian

From left: Tomoko Taouma, Alex Jordan, Hannah Banks, Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Lauren Gibson.
From left: Tomoko Taouma, Alex Jordan, Hannah Banks, Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Lauren Gibson.

From Hawera to Hollywood, playwright Aroha Awarau has attracted some of New Zealand's top creative talent to work on his first full-length play, Luncheon.

Returning to theatre directing after a five-year absence, Katie Wolfe guides a six-strong cast which includes stage and screen favourite Jennifer Ward-Lealand. She's joined by Hannah Banks, Lauren Gibson, Alex Jordan, newcomer Tomoko Taouma and Bede Skinner (who plays Hollywood mogul-in-waiting Aaron Spelling).


I've always been a movie buff and I was a presumptuous child who, at age 7, was doing things like quoting Bette Davis to my mother.
Aroha Awarau

Luncheon delves into the world of 1950s Hollywood and the five diverse women nominated for the 1958 Academy Award for best supporting actress. It plays out as these women meet four days before the award ceremony.

Four of them - Elsa Lanchester, Carolyn Jones, Hope Lange and Diane Varsi - appear to perfectly fit the Hollywood mould, but the fifth is Japanese actor Miyoshi Umeki, the first person of Asian heritage to be nominated for an Oscar.

Awarau, a former news editor for Woman's Day and now senior writer for the New Zealand Woman's Weekly, has long been fascinated by Miyoshi Umeki after seeing her picture in an encyclopaedia.

"I've always been a movie buff and I was a presumptuous child who, at age 7, was doing things like quoting Bette Davis to my mother," he recalls. "I know it's a bit of a cliche to say it, but for me Hollywood was always the stuff of dreams and a chance for escapism. I had an encyclopaedia and would look up things about Hollywood and that's where I came across the image of Miyoshi Umeki wearing her kimono."

The youngest of six and with a lively interest in writing, Awarau says he felt different compared to other children in his hometown of Hawera and perhaps he recognised in Miyoshi Umeki a kindred spirit.

"Every Hollywood function she attended she wore a kimono, showing how proud she was of her culture, during a time when World War II was still on many Americans' minds. I imagined what it would be like for Miyoshi, if she was in a room with the four other actors nominated alongside her. This is how Luncheon was born. For me, Miyoshi is at the heart of the play because it's about the importance of staying true to yourself and who you are."

Its genesis also owes something to British playwright Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, which starts with a fantastical dinner scene where five women from history discuss life, love and the universe. Awarau saw Silo Theatre's production two years ago and left the theatre so inspired he started writing Luncheon that night.

Awarau wasn't reticent about writing a story with strong female characters and points of view because, he says, nearly a decade of working on women's magazines has given him an appreciation of women's lives. His research revealed that many of the issues women faced in the 50s still remain relevant, including body image concerns, balance between work and home, and domestic violence. "For me, writing for women is the key to good writing because the qualities we most often associate with women - emotion and feeling, love and nurturing - are universal," he says. "If you get that right, you get great writing."

But Awarau appears to be a natural-born writer. While still at high school, he became the first - and so far only - writer to win the Ronald Hugh Morrieson Literary Award three times. The annual award was established by the South Taranaki District Council to commemorate Morrieson, Hawera's most famous author. Awarau's first play, for the Short'n'Sweet festival, was selected to go to Sydney, and he has just made his first short film.

Wolfe says she was captivated by the script from the first time she read it and describes it as a fascinating story with broad appeal.

"I think Aroha is a very natural writer because I could hear all of the characters as I read the script for the first time. It's a beautiful piece and there are aspects of the play that explore the anxiety and insecurities that many of us experience. Everyone I talk to about it immediately says it sounds great."

No stranger to directing plays with strong female characters, Wolfe's first stage production was a sell-out season of The Women for Silo. Ward-Lealand says Wolfe's background means she understands the style and world of the play, and brings the right sensibility to it. "Aroha has captured a terrific sense of the time and the rapid and confident style of speaking. It's unlike any other modern play I have read."

Like her fellow cast members, Ward-Lealand has done additional research into her character, Elsa Lanchester, best known for her role in the 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein.

Awarau says he was happy to incorporate additional details into his script, saying it makes the women - all of different ages and stages in their careers - more alluring. "I think Katie's been surprised by my willingness to tweak the script but even though I've been working on this for two years, I'm not precious about it. After all, I'm a journalist and we're used to having our stories edited and having to make changes and rewrites."

The one thing Awarau would not compromise on was having a Japanese actor to play Miyoshi, so he persuaded his dancer friend Tomoko Taouma.

"There's a quote in my play where Miyoshi says, 'I come to America, proud of myself and proud of my culture. Since [the movie] Sayonara, I have many offers to play roles other than Japanese. They ask me to be Vietnamese. They ask me to be Chinese. But I refuse, because I am Japanese and I am proud.'

"And I thought, with a line like that, I couldn't not have a Japanese actor."

Performance

What: Luncheon

Where and when: The Basement, May20-31

- NZ Herald

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