At the opening night of the play Witi's Wahine, in Gisborne as part of the inaugural Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival just last month, Nancy Brunning sat down the front, to one side, in her wheelchair. She'd conceived the play, a presentation of the women in the work of Witi Ihimaera. She'd also put it together – no mean feat from among Ihimaera's millions of words – and directed it. And as those who were so privileged to be in the audience that night discovered, she had given us a taonga.
"There it all was," I wrote afterwards, "Ihimaera's remarkable ability to shuffle history and myth, serving up the richness of culture and the wonder of people, with all their warts, with all the laughter and the singing and the pain. Lifting you up to ride on the back of a whale and insisting, also, that you learn how to deal with death.
"Four women and a guitar on stage. I don't mind saying I was utterly wrung out by the end, and felt blessed for it. This, again, is who we are and what we have to build on."
Ihimaera's characters and words, made wonderful on stage by Brunning's genius. She was very ill, she had been for a long time. The rumour was, people wondered if she would last. Surely not people who knew her well. Nancy Brunning (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāi Tūhoe) was not going to miss her last opening night.
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Now she has died. Such a small person, a tiny woman with eyes that blazed at you, through the camera and across the stage, a face so fierce because she was always so determined to find the truth of things, the anguish of loss and longing that drove so many of her characters. And she would give it to you, give you the things we learn from hardship and hope, as a gift.
Brunning trained at Toi Whakaari, the New Zealand Drama School, and gained her first round of fame as Nurse Jaki Manu on Shortland St. Her performance in What Becomes of the Broken Hearted won her the best actress award in the NZ Film Awards in 1999 and she took home the same honour in the NZ Television Awards the next year, for her role in Nga Tohu.
On stage she created many of the foundation roles in Māori theatre, especially in plays by Hone Kouka and Briar Grace-Smith, and built a close working relationship with Grace-Smith as an actor and director, on stage and on screen. In 2009 she was nominated again for best actress for her performance in Grace-Smith's movie Strength of Water.
Brunning did so much to foster the writers and directors and actors around her. She was a kuia who did not have the time to wait to be old, so she just got on with enriching her colleagues and the world anyway. The performer/writer/director Madeleine Sami has called her "an inspiration … so kind and humble and so wonderful to watch". The playwright Albert Belz said on Twitter, "We lost a tōtara today."
Broadcaster and friend Stacey Morrison posted on Facebook: Moe mai rā Nan. Hoki atu ki ōu mātua tīpuna. Ka noho mātou ki roto i te mamae, me te aroha mutunga kore ki a koe.
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Nancy Brunning was 48.