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After the premiere last year of Witi’s Wahine, playwright/director the late Nancy Brunning’s wish was for the play to be brought back and performed at regional venues.

That wish will be fulfilled with the production to return for the Tairawhiti Art Festival in October.

Essentially a celebration of mana wahine, the play is a collection of dramatised excerpts based on female characters from Witi Ihimaera’s short stories and novels.

The premiere was the inaugural Tairawhiti Arts Festival’s flagship event. This year, the production will be part of a regional tour.

“To take the story back home, that was Nancy’s tono, her request,” says Hapai Productions co-founder and Toi Whakaari director Tanea Heke.

“She always promised to take the production around the Coast — to places Witi had written about. It makes it a bit more poignant to support her wish and keep her promise. She knew it would be her last work and it was really important to her to see it through.”

Stories and actors in last year’s production of Witi’s Wahine have a strong connection with this region.

Waimihi Hotere (tipuna/chorus in Hone Kouka’s play Waiora, and Brydie in the film Waru) has taken on the role of director.

The 2020 production includes Mere Boynton, Roimata Fox and Ani-Piki Tuari, who performed in the original show, and Tioreore Melbourne (Hunt For the Wilderpeople).

Also from the East Coast, Melbourne is in her final year at Toi Whakaari:NZ Drama School.

“This is a beautiful way for her to come home and be showcased in such a wonderful story,” says Heke.

“Nancy’s last wish for the work was it was first experienced by the communities these stories belong to and all the wahine characterised in the play,” says Tairawhiti Arts Festival chief executive and artistic director Tama Waipara.

The show sold out last year so some locals did not get to see it, which is why this year Witi’s Wahine will tour regionally, he says.

“Personally, I think this work is destined for audiences around the world. As a region, we can lovingly send it on its way while honouring the memory of Nancy.”

With the passing this week of Rangitukia kuia Keri Kaa — a writer, educator and staunch advocate for te reo Maori — the homecoming of Witi’s Wahine is a tribute to mana wahine, says Ms Heke.

“Let’s pay tribute to the script and not just recreate the production, but pay homage to Nancy.”

Witi’s Wahine will play at three locations — Reynolds Hall in Tolaga Bay (October 2 and 3), St Paul’s Church in Wairoa (October 6), and Lawson Field Theatre in Gisborne (two performances on October 10).

Restrictions around Covid-19 mean no physical launch can take place this year. The full festival announcement will instead take place online on the night of Monday, August 31. It will be made on the Tairawhiti Arts Festival’s Facebook page and website.

MANA WAHINE: Playwright/director Nancy Brunning (left) and Polly Crawford walk on the beach at Anaura Bay. Nancy Brunning attended the premiere in Gisborne of Witi’s Wahine last year. She has since passed away but, in respect of her wishes, the production is to be performed at regional venues, including this year’s Tairawhiti Arts Festival. Picture by Strike Photography