Sep 23, 2015 Theatre
Aruna Po-Ching and Joe Folau. Photo: supplied.
Last week on Back Benches Wallace Chapman went round the streets of Wellington and asked: “Would you like to see police in New Zealand being armed with guns?”. The public were mixed. Chapman put it to the politicians that 2/3rds of police surveyed wanted greater access to arms. Labour’s Grant Robertson and National’s Matt Doocey were in broad agreement that the current system, which does allow some access, is enough. It didn’t take long until Halatau Naitoko came up. The 2009 shooting is the go-to case whenever police and arms are discussed in this country. Metiria Turei used this incident to make her point: further arm the police, and “innocent people will suffer as a result”.
In 2009 17-year-old Halatau Naitoko became the first innocent bystander to be shot and killed by New Zealand police. He was caught by fire intended for Stephen McDonald, who was armed and attempting to hijack a truck on the Northwestern motorway.
Journalist Aroha Awarau interviewed Naitoko’s mother, Ivoni Fuimaono, for stories in Woman’s Day and NZ Woman’s Weekly. Officer 27 is inspired by Fuimaono and her son’s story, as well as cases of accidental shootings overseas. In Officer 27, the victim, like Naitoko, was killed while doing a courier delivery for his family’s business. It is very clear that the real-life events are intended to resonate through the fictional.
We meet Tulia Smith (Aruna Po-Ching), a Niuean mother of seven, lying by her son’s grave, asleep and exhausted. She visits her son every day, and it is there that she strikes up an unlikely friendship with an affable but troubled palangi youth, Jordan (Taylor Barrett), who grieves for the loss of his mother from cancer, and faces a court appearance for a minor shoplifting charge. Jordan reacts how many of us might when he realises who Tulia is: “that boy on the news… the pig shot him by accident… you must hate the cops ay”.
But it is not hate that motivates her, but the need for knowledge, to meet the anonymous cop – Officer 27 – who took her boy away from her, and look him in the eye. Who is he? Does he have a family? Does he have sleepless nights too? Tulia has clocked up 40 letters to the police pleading for a meeting. Each time the message back has been regret at the “unfortunate accident”, and that her request cannot be granted. Homelife is tense. Her husband, Max Smith (Joe Folau), sees the toll the obsession takes on Tulia and wants her to stop, to “accept life isn’t fair”. Max is a man of few words, but the actor carries the weight of his loss in his body – stiff and broken.
Po-Ching’s Tulia works hard not to show her grief. She’s chipper, wants to keep going. Awarau’s play is most powerful when it shows us the cracks – when Tulia reveals her guilt about the day her son’s life was taken while trying to stay strong for Jordan ahead of his court appointment, or when Tulia and Max try to comfort each other when their mutual pain becomes overpowering.
Officer 27 takes a wrong turn when it moves into fantasy once Jordan takes it upon himself to engineer a meeting between Tulia and Officer 27. Nothing rings true here, and the tone and attitude of Jatinder Singh’s character feels particularly off. Worse, to find a resolution to the story, Awarau resorts to a very clichéd trope, which does a big disservice to Po-Ching’s character. We did not need this false shot of drama – the story of a mother desperate to find some sense of closure is compelling enough. It’s absurd how quickly and completely the play loses its way.
There’s huge value in going behind the headlines, and looking at how policies set at the Government level can have unforeseen and ongoing repercussions. Using actual events as inspiration for this play comes with an extra ethical responsibility in its storytelling. Yes, it should fictionalise, but in doing so, should distil something true. David Grieg’s The Events, staged by Silo Theatre, does this very well. Unfortunately, Officer 27 fails in its task.
Officer 27 runs until 26th September. basementtheatre.co.nz