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Playwright Aroha Awarau. Photo/Tony Nyberg/Listener

Playwright Aroha Awarau on growing up gay in small-town New Zealand

Aroha Awarau (Ngāti Maru, Ngāti Porou, Niuean) talks to Clare de Lore about his difficult childhood, his love of Oprah Winfrey and his latest play, which focuses on “gay panic” and the defence of provocation that until recently was often used by those on trial for killing gay men.

“All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men. But I never thought I’d have to fight in my own house.” Aroha Awarau recites his favourite line from the movie adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple. Awarau was a nine-year-old boy who didn't feel safe in his own family of men when he watched the movie in 1985. He identified with the movie’s feisty Sofia, played by Oprah Winfrey, her words seared into his memory. And he instantly became a devoted fan of Winfrey, never imagining he would one day meet his idol.

Awarau grew up in the small Taranaki town of Hawera. His father, Wera, was a mechanic in the oil industry and his mother, Nina, was a manager in the Department of Māori Affairs. Life was tough for the boy who knew from an early age that he was gay. At 12, he became a boarder at the all-male Hato Pāora College in Feilding, and some of his clearest memories are of no one wanting him on their rugby team and being called a poofter. He spent four years there before both bad and good luck changed the course of his life. He was 15 when his mother died of cancer and, soon after, he became an American Field Scholar, giving him a welcome break from his bereaved and angry father, his four brothers and a sister.

Aroha Awarau interviewing his idol, Oprah Winfrey, for Māori TV in 2017. Photo/Māori TV

Auckland-based Awarau is about to premiere a new play called Provocation, about the defence of provocation, used frequently in cases where gay men were murdered. After Clayton Weatherston invoked the defence in his 2009 trial for the 2008 murder of Sophie Elliott, it was struck from the law.

Awarau is collaborating on the play with actor and director Jennifer Ward-Lealand. They have several joint projects on the go, including a movie called Officer 27, based on Awarau’s play of the same name. It will hopefully go into production later this year.

Awarau’s first play, Luncheon, produced in 2015, is about the Japanese actress Miyoshi Umeki, who won an Oscar for best supporting actress in the 1957 movie Sayonara.

With Jennifer Ward-Lealand at the 2014 Script Writer Awards New Zealand ceremony. Photo/Awarau family collection/Supplied

It was an unusual choice of subject for a young Māori playwright, wasn’t it?

It was my first play and, with a first, you want to show the world your voice. And it also showed that I don’t necessarily have to write about things that pertain to a Māori world. In New Zealand, there is an expectation that if you are from a certain culture or sexuality, your plays must come from those worlds. But I definitely define it as a Māori play because, while there are no Māori characters, it is my voice and my world view – I don’t know what it’s like to be an Academy Award-winning actress or to be Japanese, but I know what it’s like to walk into the room and be the “other”.

There are many women who have made a difference in your life, starting with your mother. What was your home life like and how does it relate to Provocation?

I’ve always wanted to write Provocation. I grew up gay in a small town, in a male household. I grew up with four brothers and a sister, and my father and my brothers were very masculine and very homophobic. At home, people punched first and I knew masculine men can be quite unpredictable. In cases where men have used provocation as a defence, the cases are quite similar. There’s always an effeminate gay man. And there’s always a killer who isn’t effeminate, who is on the cusp of his sexuality, killers who don’t consider themselves gay, but decide to go home with a gay man. The killers are always quite masculine. I read articles about this and I thought, “This could happen to me.” But Mum was the best person in the world, my protector. I think she knew the life I would lead.

With his parents in 1991. Photo/Awarau family collection/Supplied

Removing the defence of provocation doesn’t remove the danger, does it?

Exactly. And there is the issue of attraction – I am attracted to masculine men and you can just take the wrong person home. They could just snap, because they are not comfortable with who they are. You are put in a position where you can’t defend yourself – you are killed and then comes a victim-blaming defence. The victim has to be seen as so deviant that a jury lets [the defendant] off a murder charge. When people use gay slurs or in the Israel Folau situation, they say, “That’s my opinion, my beliefs”, but there is a real danger that people get hurt. I was the victim of a hate crime in 2001. I was viciously attacked and hospitalised because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had just recently come out and I was a very unaware gay man. I thought I could be whatever I wanted without worrying. Where there are men around who want to hurt you, you have to get out. I wasn’t as aware as I needed to be.

When you were 15, you lost your mother, but soon after, in 1993, you gained another family, via an American Field Scholarship. How did that affect you?

After I lost my mother, I found myself travelling to New York within the year. I had never even been on a plane before. Andy [Awarau’s AFS father] said he lost his dad when he was the same age as me. He said he knew the kind of grief I would be going through and that is one of the reasons they decided to host me. It’s amazing, because having a teenager for a year and not getting paid is a big sacrifice, and they had a young family as well. So, I have my American family and some have come here to visit me. I’ve asked my American mother if she knew I was gay – I wasn’t out then – and she said they had figured it out. What a family: they helped me with my grief and they accepted that I was gay.

With his US host family in 1993. Photo/Awarau family collection/Supplied

So, who are you close to today?

I have never found “the one”, but I’ve got lots of friends who I’m very close to. It’s that cliché – you create the family you want. But I’ve forgiven my father and made a conscious decision to have a relationship with him. He is 80 and in a rest home in Taranaki. I realised my anger was unhealthy.

You had an interesting career as a journalist before becoming a playwright, and have also worked in the movie industry. How did that come about?

I did a BA with a major in film and television and got to work on What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, the Once Were Warriors sequel. I sewed all the gang patches in that. I didn’t know how to sew, but I was desperate to get a job in film. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

How did that lead you into journalism?

It didn’t to start with. I got burnt out after about a year and I needed a normal job, or thought I did. I went to work for the BNZ and was there for four years. I was progressing at the bank and I loved it, but then I thought, “I’ll wake up aged 50 one day and still be here. I have got to get out.” So, I studied journalism at AUT, then spent two years at the Central Leader newspaper. Sido Kitchin, who was the editor of the Woman’s Weekly, was reading my articles and offered me a job. That and some stints with Woman’s Day and Māori TV took me through to 2015.

With actress Whoopi Goldberg in 2017. Photo/Awarau family collection/Supplied

How do you survive financially as a playwright?

I’m freelancing as a journalist as well, writing for Woman’s Day, Stuff and Māori TV.

Oprah is a lifelong obsession. Why?

After watching The Color Purple, I connected with her. I would race home from school to watch her every day. When I became a journalist, I watched a box set of hers and I would emulate her. She became a huge influence in my life. When she came to New Zealand in 2015, I wasn’t working, so I couldn’t afford to see her, and I remember thinking, “Oh my God, like, I am actually her biggest fan. How can this happen?”

When she returned to New Zealand a few years later, you were the only person available at Māori TV when she agreed to an interview at short notice. That must have been amazing.

I wasn’t really myself. I had the pressure of being on camera and I hadn’t even done that before. And she kept touching me, putting her hand on my arm, which was weird because I was, like, “I’m trying just to focus on being in your presence”, but she is a very warm, touching person. Maybe for two weeks afterwards I would wake up thinking it was a dream that I met Oprah Winfrey, but it actually happened, and it was my career highlight.

With his mother, Nina, in 1984. Photo/Awarau family collection/Supplied

Your mother always protected you and knew you were different, but did you ever talk to her about being gay?

When she got cancer, I wanted to tell her I was gay. She was given only months to live and, in the end, she got one month. I was at her bedside and trying to think of the words to tell her and she stopped me and said, “Don’t worry, I know, and I love you.” Nothing else needed to be said and it gave me the courage and strength to be the person I am today.

This article was first published in the February 1, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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