When life isn't fair ...

A stray bullet, a mother's heartbreak forms the basis of Officer 27.

Officer 27 by Aroha Awarau
September 22 – 26, The Basement Theatre, Auckland

Officer 27 is a collision of conflicts born of a stray bullet, a mother’s heartbreak and an unavailable officer obscured by protocol.

Based on the accidental shooting of teenager Halatau Naitoko by police while chasing the drug-fuelled, armed criminal Stephen McDonald in 2009, journalist and playwright Aroha Awarau explores the derailing grief of a Niuean mother of seven seeking closure for the death of her son. Her desperate letters requesting to meet the officer responsible are declined and she is imprisoned by a wretched doggedness compelling her to “write [yet] another one, and another, and another.”

The fictional play is one of contrasts. Cheerful sounds of King Kapisi, Ladi 6 and Nesian Mystic greet the audience upon entering but seem unlikely companions amidst the sobering image of Tulia (Aruna Po-Ching) curled up asleep at her son’s grave. Her staunch weariness before a young teenage Pakeha boy Jordan (Taylor Barrett), whom she meets at the cemetery, gives way to his inquisitive energy. Their friendship, unlikely at first, is strengthened through a mutual sympathy for each other’s loss. Tulia’s husband Max (Joe Folau), provides the final antithesis. Much less optimistic and idealistic, he views meeting the elusive Officer 27 as a futile game best left alone. Sometimes “life isn’t fair.” Collectively, the trio explore notions of rage, resilience but also resignation.

The most powerful scenes were those between husband and wife. The raw reality of both losing a child and losing one’s mind, suspecting every passing officer, exploded on stage. Po-Ching and Folau were intense, pain-fuelled – fully immersed in their roles. And while “people at church are talking” of Tulia’s absence, Max’s plea to “pray” falls largely on defiant ears. But unlike Jordan who holds a distinctively “pigs” [anti-police] view, Tulia harbours more angst than animosity towards the nameless officer.

Her daily grave visits and endless letters carve a pitiful sight and her struggle offers no reprieve. Tulia personifies philosopher Albert Camus’ ‘absurd’ in The Myth of Sisyphus: between a son’s death and police procedure, she is stuck between “a bare fact and a certain reality, between an action and the world that transcends it.” In searching for order amongst the chaos, Tulia blurs the imagined and real. Her unconscious fabrication in which she traverses the space between herself and Officer 27 offers at best, a momentary respite, at worst, a disappointing mirage.

The theatre is intimate, working both for and against audience experience: outside street chatter threaten to penetrate theatre walls mid-dialogue, while inside, seating is arranged in an almost-too-close proximity of actors and stage, intensifying the emotional display but also challenging one from fully disappearing into the story. The lighting is simple and solemn on the sparse set: a curtain for a grave, a bottle of wine for the pain, a handful of flowers. Imagination fills in the rest.

By lights up, the once-boisterous crowd is teary-eyed and sniffles pepper the applause. Awarau’s play evokes empathy and questions police protocol. The Pacific-themed play is a sensitive, well-explored story with interesting twists but also an uncomfortable paradox: while you longed to see closure for Tulia on one hand, on the other, the repercussions of such a meeting would be immense. Her narrative, it seems, would continue for some time yet.