Community sweetheart Nanu (Ngāti Maniapoto, Te Āti Haunui-ā-Pāpārangi) became the first trans actor to walk away with the Best Supporting Actress gong at the annual Zony Awards, celebrating musical theatre. She talks to YOUR ex about her successes, the importance of performing in regional communities, and why her heart belongs to Rotorua.
Where did you grow up, and what was it like for you to grow up there?
I grew up in a beautiful little rural town called Murupara, surrounded by pine trees, rushing rivers, and amazing native forests. The village itself, though, was not for the faint of heart, especially if you stuck out like a sore thumb like I did. Resilience and fearlessness were two of the main strengths I gained from growing up there. While it wasn’t always easy, I was never without support.
At what age did you know you were trans, and what was your coming-out journey like?
I guess I’ve always known. My family told me I began expressing my femininity when I was about two years old. Coming out wasn’t the easiest back then. Although my family knew, I wasn’t encouraged in my expression by them out of fear that I would attract unnecessary attention to myself.
Did you always want to be an actor?
I’ve always wanted to sing. Acting just happened to go hand in hand with performing arts, so it was a natural progression. Performing allowed me to fully explore who I was creatively and gave me the opportunity to embrace all that I am. I distinctly remember being able to memorise entire scripts, music cues, harmonies, choreography, etc., from as young as five. I wasn’t great at sports, so I threw myself into music and singing.
Why do you choose to live in Rotorua?
Rotorua will always have my heart. I miss the Auckland cabaret/showgirl scene, but for me, Rotorua is a mecca of raw talent just waiting to be discovered, and I like to think that I’m able to impart my pearls of wisdom and experience to many up-and-coming performers as they get ready to tackle the big, wide world.
What’s the rainbow scene like in Rotorua at present?
For a while, Rotorua was a very transient space for our rainbow whānau. They would often come from smaller towns, stay here for a bit to figure themselves out, or embrace their truth here, then head either overseas or to the bigger cities where strong communities were in place. Now, though, many rainbow whānau are moving here to live, and that’s really great to see. We currently have a support group, The Rotorua Chamber of Pride, that get together the last Friday of every month at different locations throughout the city. I love that our younger people get to share space with our more ‘seasoned’ members to exchange stories while strengthening support systems. I also love that our group is extremely diverse.
You recently won a Zony Award for the role of Sophia in The Colour Purple! Tell us what that was like for you?
That was totally unexpected. To be given the opportunity to portray strong female lead roles is something I value as a performer, and the support from The Rotorua Musical Theatre Society, who have encouraged me ever since I first took to the stage with them back in 2003, has been invaluable. As whakawahine, to be nominated was a blessing, but to be recognised and awarded for the amount of mauri, wairua, and Aroha that I channelled during this show was both cathartic and humbling. It was also the first Zony to be won by our society, so I’m feeling pretty accomplished.
Do you feel that this will open the door to more trans people working in musical theatre in Aotearoa?
It is an honour for me to represent being Māori, and being whakawahine in musical theatre, and I sincerely hope that it encourages more of our trans whānau to be onstage and in the spotlight.
What was the experience like working on The Colour Purple?
It was one of the most challenging roles I have ever played. I’m a massive over-thinker, and the role of ‘Sophia’ was a lot – she’s a survivor, she’s tough, resilient, outspoken, and a proud advocate for women of colour in a time where segregation ruled. Many thought that it would be a ‘walk in the park’ for me as I am known to possess these same qualities, but the gravitas of playing a character like her (originally played by Oprah Winfrey in the movie and then Danielle Brooks in the Broadway show) came with so much expectation and responsibility that I was a little overwhelmed. There were moments where the scenes just weren’t working, and I couldn’t find my place. I had to remind myself that we are inherently great storytellers, and once I stopped worrying about being great and just started having fun, it all came together. The creative team were men who were either Māori or Pasifika, one of whom identifies as takatāpui. Our sound team was comprised of two trans whānau and one who identifies as lesbian. The cast was also a mix of stunning rainbow performers, young and not-so-young. We were a family throughout – there was Tikanga and kawa involved around consent in all we did, and that really breathed some beautiful energy into the show.
Do you feel that there are any similarities between the story of The Colour Purple and living as a trans woman of colour now?
To really access that persona, I had to confront a few uncomfortable memories from my past, and at one point, I almost wanted to back out of the project. I eventually found the ‘me’ in ‘her’, however, and realised the positive impact my portrayal could have on so many people. One actor actually left the project as he felt that we didn’t have the right to tell the story as we weren’t African American. However, the themes of the show – loss, broken families, poverty, physical and sexual violence, racial tension, and segregation – are all issues that we currently face in Aotearoa, and this was the perfect way to address these issues in a safe environment where the audience felt a part of it all but wasn’t left feeling sad about it. The segregation – verbal and physical abuse – I experienced because of who I am cemented my connection to the story and the character.