Writer Witi Ihimaera has proposed a touching tribute to Nancy Brunning – adding her as a character to her own, final play.

The Whale Rider author has joined an outpouring of praise for the renowned actor, writer and director, following news she'd died after battling an undisclosed illness.

And this afternoon at Wellington's Hannah Playhouse, it was announced she'd posthumously won New Zealand's premier playwrighting honour: the Bruce Mason Award.

Since coming to prominence as the matter-of-fact young nurse Jaki Manu, in the original Shortland Street cast, Brunning, 48, forged a celebrated career in New Zealand cinema and theatre.

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It included roles in movies such as What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, and 2015's Mahana, based on Ihimaera's book, Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies, and in which she starred family matriarch Grandmother Romana.

Nancy Brunning in a scene from the 1999 New Zealand film What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, sequel to Once Were Warriors. Photo / File
Nancy Brunning in a scene from the 1999 New Zealand film What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, sequel to Once Were Warriors. Photo / File

Having worked alongside other Kiwi luminaries like Taika Waititi, Lee Tamahori and Ian Mune, Brunning's final project was Witi's Wāhine, based on excerpts from Ihimaera's stories, and featuring some of his most powerful wāhine Māori characters.

Earlier this year, she told the Herald that the play laid down a wero (challenge) to other playwrights, storytellers and film-makers to ensure they write more honest and varied roles for women who, in turn, can be role models for the next generation.

"In the theatre, I've played some amazing women but in film and TV, it seems everything needs to be dumbed down because it's so male orientated," she said in July.

"I want to show women with history who aren't one-dimensional but who have character and influence. They are the types of people I am interested in."

Speaking to the Herald today, Ihimaera said he planned to approach Tanea Heke – the other half of Brunning's company Hāpai Productions – to request adding Brunning as a character to Witi's Wāhine.

He described her as an "enormous, immense, presence".

"Above all else, I would call her an activist for Māori and New Zealand theatre. [She and Tanea Heke] assembled a group of Māori women around them, just to make sure there was the strength of mana wahine in all of their theatre productions."

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Ihimaera recalled first meeting Brunning when she was a teen at Taupō-nui-a-Tia College, in the 1980s.

Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera has joined an outpouring of praise for the renowned actor, writer and director Nancy Brunning. Photo / NZ Herald
Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera has joined an outpouring of praise for the renowned actor, writer and director Nancy Brunning. Photo / NZ Herald

"They were putting on a college production of the Whale Rider, so I always call her my very first Nanny Flowers, even though she was a young girl, maybe only of 17. She was all dressed up in a wig, to make her look older.

"We'd hang out when she started to turn up in film and theatre. There were a number of us who thought, oh look at this young woman, because she was mentored by many of the people of my generation."

In one of the last times he saw her, Brunning was confined to a wheelchair – but still trying to ensure that Witi's Wāhine, which recently featured at the Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival, was a top quality production.

"She looked like a tiny bird in her wheelchair. But she was an eagle."

Brunning's death came after her whānau organised a fundraising campaign to raise $67,000 for a "life-prolonging" drug to help her with her condition, which wasn't disclosed.

In a message posted to Facebook today, television and radio host Stacey Morrison wrote: "Our māmā, our sister, our aunty, our friend, she has followed the call of her tīpuna. Nancy's passion was to bring unheard stories to the light.

Nancy Brunning in a 1999 photo. Brunning become a household name after starring as a young nurse in Shortland Street. Photo / File
Nancy Brunning in a 1999 photo. Brunning become a household name after starring as a young nurse in Shortland Street. Photo / File

"To remind our people that our voices are a powerful tool and aroha is the most important thing of all.

"And while she was loved by the world, she was loved even more by us. She was the person that bound our whānau together."

Plans were being made to take Brunning's body to Raukawa Marae near Otaki.

"We wish to express our deep gratitude and mihi to everyone who has supported Nancy and our whānau," Morrison said.

"Thank you to the kind people at Mary Potter Hospice and the hard-working staff at Wellington Hospital. Thank you to all of you who supported her battle in many ways, including the Manaakitia fundraiser."