In and out of the written world

WORLD PREMIERE: Actor/singer Mere Boynton (right) will talk about Nancy Brunning’s play Witi’s Wahine at next week’s announcement of the Tairawhiti Arts Festival programme. The play, which will have its world premiere at the inaugural arts festival, also features Roimata Fox (left), Ani-Piki Tuari, and Ngapaki Moetara. Picture by Strike Photography
Witi's Wahine - Mere Boynton, Ani-Piki Tuari, Roimata Fox, Ngapaki Moetara

The discovery of Waituhi-born writer Witi Ihimaera’s stories of modern Maori life was a revelation for singer/actor Mere Boynton.

Recently returned from a concert performance in Rarotonga, Boynton is the producer of actor/director Nancy Brunning’s play Witi’s Wahine.

Boynton also plays several characters in the play that will have its world premiere when the show opens the inaugural Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival in October. Actors Roimata Fox, Ani-Piki Tuari and Ngapaki Moetara also play multiple roles in the play based on excerpts from Ihimaera’s novels such as Parihaka Woman, Medicine Woman, and Waituhi.

The actors are all from, or have a strong connection with, Tairawhiti. Boynton was brought up on an isolated Mangatu farm where she was an avid reader.

“I’d grown up on Cinderella and other pakeha stories. The first set of books I read were Bible stories that came in a journal set. Witi’s stories about Maori were an eye-opener for me. When I found his collection Pounamu, Pounamu I sat down and read it right through.

“I realised how important that was. In the background were our ancestral stories I didn’t know, and Te Kooti. All around Mangatu and Te Karaka was the Ringatu faith which permeated what we did at the marae.”

Ihimaera’s novel Whale Rider was published around the time Boynton was a student at Victoria University. She read the book straight through from cover to cover.

“Witi has always been present in my life.”

Ihimaera’s novel The Matriarch was a challenging read because it jumps between fantasy and politics but Boynton is glad she persevered with it, she says. Among characters Boynton plays is the novel’s formidable protagonist Artemis Riripeti Mahana.

“The matriarch sees herself as heir to two Maori power-figures: Te Kooti, the rebel and religious prophet who fought a guerrilla war for a number of years and survived to be pardoned, and Wi Pere Halbert, a 19th-century Maori politician who conducted from the floor of Parliament his campaign to preserve Maori land under Maori control,” wrote Karl Stead in his 1986 review.

“The Ihimaera of sensitive, lyrical, rather plangent evocations is gone. In his place we have the novelist as warrior, the novel as taiaha or mere, the reader as ally or enemy.”

Artemis encapsulates a facet of women from Tairawhiti and Turanganui-a-Kiwa, says Boynton.

“That strength of character and warrior-like persona — I think women from Tairawhiti are very strong and have many layers and have held our community and society together.”

Boynton, Fox, Tuari and Moetara play at least three characters each. They also act as narrators at times or, as bodies on the set, create shapes. They step in and out of the written world while making real-time commentary on the context of each of the written characters and their real life inspiration.

“Witi’s Wahine is quite physical work. I’m looking forward to theatre work that requires me to be physical,” says Boynton.

She has travelled the world with Samoan dancer/chorographer Sala Lemi Ponifasio’s Mau Wahine company whose performances were physically demanding. In recent years, though Boynton has worked more in film and television so the physicality of Witi’s Wahine is another challenge Boynton enjoys working with.

Getting parts on screen or stage is notoriously more difficult for maturing actors — but as a real-life wahine Boynton is finding the opposite to be true.

“As I’ve matured, more offers are coming my way. There’s a lot of storytelling for Maori at the moment.”

“They want someone like me — older, more mature. Maori storytelling shows the value of people in all generations. We all matter and make up society.”

One character Boynton plays in Brunning’s work is from Ihimaera’s play Woman Far Walking whose 160 year old protagonist Tiri Mahana (or Te Tiriti o Waitangi Mahana) was born on the day the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. According to Ihimaera the themes of the play are “the survival, struggles and resilience of the Maori people as shown through the life of one woman.”

“A huge focus in the production is Te Kooti, what happened to him and how he was chased by (Major Reginald) Biggs into the Te Urewera. There is a meaty korero about this incident.”

Boynton also plays Ihimaera’s mother. One of the author’s aunts told Brunning about how his mother took stones from the Waipaoa River to lay at her brother’s grave overseas after he was killed in Tunisia during World War 2.

Witi’s Wahine is a work in progress. After a recent read-through Brunning is working on a third draft before the actors and director workshop the play.

“We’re creating a space for the stories to tell themselves,” says Boynton.

The discovery of Waituhi-born writer Witi Ihimaera’s stories of modern Maori life was a revelation for singer/actor Mere Boynton.

Recently returned from a concert performance in Rarotonga, Boynton is the producer of actor/director Nancy Brunning’s play Witi’s Wahine.

Boynton also plays several characters in the play that will have its world premiere when the show opens the inaugural Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival in October. Actors Roimata Fox, Ani-Piki Tuari and Ngapaki Moetara also play multiple roles in the play based on excerpts from Ihimaera’s novels such as Parihaka Woman, Medicine Woman, and Waituhi.

The actors are all from, or have a strong connection with, Tairawhiti. Boynton was brought up on an isolated Mangatu farm where she was an avid reader.

“I’d grown up on Cinderella and other pakeha stories. The first set of books I read were Bible stories that came in a journal set. Witi’s stories about Maori were an eye-opener for me. When I found his collection Pounamu, Pounamu I sat down and read it right through.

“I realised how important that was. In the background were our ancestral stories I didn’t know, and Te Kooti. All around Mangatu and Te Karaka was the Ringatu faith which permeated what we did at the marae.”

Ihimaera’s novel Whale Rider was published around the time Boynton was a student at Victoria University. She read the book straight through from cover to cover.

“Witi has always been present in my life.”

Ihimaera’s novel The Matriarch was a challenging read because it jumps between fantasy and politics but Boynton is glad she persevered with it, she says. Among characters Boynton plays is the novel’s formidable protagonist Artemis Riripeti Mahana.

“The matriarch sees herself as heir to two Maori power-figures: Te Kooti, the rebel and religious prophet who fought a guerrilla war for a number of years and survived to be pardoned, and Wi Pere Halbert, a 19th-century Maori politician who conducted from the floor of Parliament his campaign to preserve Maori land under Maori control,” wrote Karl Stead in his 1986 review.

“The Ihimaera of sensitive, lyrical, rather plangent evocations is gone. In his place we have the novelist as warrior, the novel as taiaha or mere, the reader as ally or enemy.”

Artemis encapsulates a facet of women from Tairawhiti and Turanganui-a-Kiwa, says Boynton.

“That strength of character and warrior-like persona — I think women from Tairawhiti are very strong and have many layers and have held our community and society together.”

Boynton, Fox, Tuari and Moetara play at least three characters each. They also act as narrators at times or, as bodies on the set, create shapes. They step in and out of the written world while making real-time commentary on the context of each of the written characters and their real life inspiration.

“Witi’s Wahine is quite physical work. I’m looking forward to theatre work that requires me to be physical,” says Boynton.

She has travelled the world with Samoan dancer/chorographer Sala Lemi Ponifasio’s Mau Wahine company whose performances were physically demanding. In recent years, though Boynton has worked more in film and television so the physicality of Witi’s Wahine is another challenge Boynton enjoys working with.

Getting parts on screen or stage is notoriously more difficult for maturing actors — but as a real-life wahine Boynton is finding the opposite to be true.

“As I’ve matured, more offers are coming my way. There’s a lot of storytelling for Maori at the moment.”

“They want someone like me — older, more mature. Maori storytelling shows the value of people in all generations. We all matter and make up society.”

One character Boynton plays in Brunning’s work is from Ihimaera’s play Woman Far Walking whose 160 year old protagonist Tiri Mahana (or Te Tiriti o Waitangi Mahana) was born on the day the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. According to Ihimaera the themes of the play are “the survival, struggles and resilience of the Maori people as shown through the life of one woman.”

“A huge focus in the production is Te Kooti, what happened to him and how he was chased by (Major Reginald) Biggs into the Te Urewera. There is a meaty korero about this incident.”

Boynton also plays Ihimaera’s mother. One of the author’s aunts told Brunning about how his mother took stones from the Waipaoa River to lay at her brother’s grave overseas after he was killed in Tunisia during World War 2.

Witi’s Wahine is a work in progress. After a recent read-through Brunning is working on a third draft before the actors and director workshop the play.

“We’re creating a space for the stories to tell themselves,” says Boynton.

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