Māori and Samoan actors highlight need for mental health awareness

By Jessica Tyson

A play resonating with an ever-increasing need for mental health awareness and support in Aotearoa is set to open tonight in Auckland, played by Māori actor Jason Te Kare, and Samoan actress Anapela Polata'ivao.

Every Brilliant Thing is a play about a child of a mother who self-harms and the child wants to help her.  

“The play is basically about a list of brilliant things the main character starts writing, really to help figure out his mother’s depression. So the young boy starts writing a list of brilliant things to help his mother see the brilliant things in the world,” Te Kare says.

The list includes memories about the young character’s favourite songs, movies, sports stars such as Jonah Lomu, the haka and staying up late past his bedtime.

“But then it grows as he grows. So it becomes things like falling in love, hugging, the even-numbered Star Trek films. So it gets very specific," Te Kare says.

“The list symbolises the beautiful things that we are surrounded by in our lives. We forget how lucky we are sometimes, so the list is a reminder to open your eyes to the brilliant things that are just around you in your everyday life.”

Te Kare will be sharing the role with Polata'ivao. It will be their first-ever solo shows despite having a combined time 40 years working in this industry.

“We’re alternating nights. She’ll be on one night, I’ll be the next night … Her version of the same show is amazingly different simply because the play asks you to bring a lot of yourself to the work and just being a completely different person with a different style of performance.”

Mental health

The play will engage the audience in a conversation about suicide without stigma.

“Our statistics around whakamomori, around suicide, are atrocious so it’s particularly important for Māori. Our rangatahi are overrepresented in huge numbers in that area so it’s an important kōrero to get out there, "says Te Kare, of Ngāti Maniapoto, Tainui.

The recent report released by Zero Suicide Aotearoa specifically identified the Māori community as being in a higher-risk group. Findings showed the Māori suicide rate over 100 per cent higher than the national average, with rangatahi Māori particularly at risk.

Polata'ivao says 2020 has been a rough ride for all New Zealanders.

“I’ve got teenage kids - they’re finding it really, really hard and so I know some schools are really suffering because of this," she says. "Kids are having to leave school, leave their education to go and work and support the family."

"It’s a good thing that we’re not just burying it and we are becoming better I think it  talking about it."

Danielle Cormack and Robbie Magasiva

Wentworth co-stars Danielle Cormack and Robbie Magasiva originally broached the idea of bringing the play back to New Zealand with Silo Theatre but, with ever-shifting border restrictions and quarantine time challenges, the pair were unable to travel home from Australia.

Magasiva then handed the leading role over to award-winning Polata'ivao (Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, My Name Is Gary Cooper, Filthy Rich) and Te Kare (CellFish and Pop-up Globe).

Cormack directed the process from across the Tasman via a live digital platform, collaborating with Te Kare and Polata'ivao.

"I feel so fortunate we are still able to present this work in what has been a particularly challenging year,"  Cormack says.

"In fact, this project is more relevant than ever, both in exploring how we rehearse and create in this new climate and also presenting a play that deals with emotional isolation and the strains of mental health - matters that have been so testing in the Covid-19 crisis. The beauty of this work is that it explores these themes with as much gravity as it does levity, which makes an enduring piece of theatre."

Every Brilliant Thing will be performed at Fale of Sāmoa House on Karangahape Road, Auckland every night until December 6.