Jarod Rawiri: From GI to riding high on stage & screen

Dionne Christian ,
Spy News,
Publish Date
Sunday, 10 June 2018, 4:23PM

We lose Jarod Rawiri halfway between Te Oro, the 3-year-old music and arts centre in Glen Innes, and a pedestrian laneway lined with takeaway bars and cafes.

Rawiri, who grew up in GI but left 15 years ago, is wrapped up in a hug from from an old rugby and paddling mate. They exchange a few words and Rawiri looks slightly incredulous that after so many years away, he's already bumped into an old mate.

He's also looking at what has become of the neighbourhood shops and declares it was once a lot livelier, with more businesses. Childhood memories are further triggered when two schoolgirls wearing Glendowie College uniforms ask to have their photo taken with him. When he was at Glendowie College, he was almost too shy to do drama classes.

It's likely he wouldn't be on Shortland Street, playing steadfast family man Mo Hannah, if it wasn't for teacher Jane Griffin, who recruited him for a school show when she needed someone with taiaha (Māori weaponry) skills.

"I'd learned it through family because I've got a bunch of family members who all perform kapa haka at Auckland Museum," he explains. "The show was called Dream Warrior and it was my first time on stage not doing kapa haka. It was pretty exciting because I was a fourth former and it was a six-form production."

"From that, she - Griffin - said, 'you need to do drama next year'. Otherwise, no way; I was too shy. My friend Elnez Tofa, he did all the school productions but I was, 'no way, no way would I audition for a school production'."

Jarod Rawiri in Angels in America.

Rawiri, a father of three and stepfather of one, is now one of our leading actors and, while there have been lean times, has rarely been out of work. We've met in Glen Innes to talk about his latest project, Silo Theatre's Cellfish, because it's partly crafted from these streets.

Created by Miriama McDowell, Jason Te Kare and Rob Mokaraka, the two-person show centres on Miss Lucy (Carrie Green) who's teaching Shakespeare to prison inmates. "Colonising Shakespeare," Te Kare likes to call it.

The characters and their backgrounds are based on McDowell's experience of creating theatre with Paparua inmates in Christchurch; the mental health and justice systems in Aotearoa and Te Kare's own GI childhood.

He and Rawiri grew up on the same street and his mum, Barbara, is a much-respected social worker and well-known Glen Innes community champion. From the age of 7, Te Kare's childhood home housed youth at risk, run by his mum initially with very little government funding.

"In that environment, I experienced first-hand the way a young person's perspective on life can become skewed, so crime and violence are idolised," Te Kare says. "I also experienced how potent parental and whānau love can be, and for some of the teenagers who lived with us, our home was their very first experience of it."

Rawiri is all too aware that if his own circumstances had been different, he might have made other choices, which would have taken him far from stage and screen. By his own admission, Glen Innes was - can still be - a tough place to grow up and he acknowledges there were times in his young life when petty crime called.

"We got into a little bit of mischief and there were some boys who were gang affiliated but because we were so young, we still had our innocence and there was a naivety to it."

He blushes when confessing, for the first time, to once having broken into a school and stolen food from the tuckshop. Did he feel bad?

"I did, yeah. I mean, it was exciting as well but it was also really, like ... I just felt like I was hurting people."

Cellfish is important because he gets to wake up acting muscles he hasn't used for some time, but it's also more personal, presenting some tough truths as it questions the role between intergenerational domestic violence and our justice and prison systems. There's humour but also real tension in the storytelling between personal choices and displaced circumstance. How do you avoid making the wrong choice when you've never been shown the right one?

Jarod Rawiri in Silo Theatre's Cellfish.

That the excitement of petty crime didn't lead to more serious crimes for Rawiri can probably be credited to his mum, Awhina. She was a student at the University of Auckland when she had Rawiri. His birth father was not in their lives.

She continued studying and working part-time while raising her son. He remembers sitting in lectures with her, fascinated by the people and, possibly, the theatre of it all; he would come to the cinemas she worked in and sit behind the candy bar or peek through the gaps in closed doors to watch movies like Gremlins.

From her, Rawiri learned tenacity, drive, resilience and the importance of family. The thought that he might let her down still sits on his shoulders. He remembers going into Glen Innes with her to do some shopping and ignoring his mother as he tried to be "cool" in front of some teenage mates.

"Mum managed to keep her tongue until we got home and then she let me have it," he recalls. "She said, 'don't you ever disrespect me again and treat me like you don't know me! Don't you ever treat me like a stranger. I am your family and you don't do that to family members'. I felt so guilty about the way I behaved and that's a lesson that I've shared with my children: to never try to be something that you're not; always remember who you are and who you come from."

A Silo Theatre favourite - he's appeared in some of the company's most acclaimed productions, including Take Me Out and Angels in America - Rawiri hasn't been available for theatre since joining Shortland Street three years ago. "This is the longest I have ever been in one job as an actor, and that has its challenges, playing the one character and doing the one thing all the time, when you've been used to these six-week-long gigs.

"That's something that I am attracted to: having a project that you put all your energy and time into for that short amount of time and then being able to let it go again. Being on Shortland Street has taught me lots, but it's good to be doing this ... it's multi-character, singing and dancing, comedy as well as real, raw tragedy, drama, and put it all together and it's a massive challenge. It's two people on stage; it's huge and I'm exhausted every day ... and I did a solo show with Jason!"

That show was I, George Nepia , which was part of Te Oro's opening celebrations three years ago. He was stoked to be back "home" opening a new cultural centre where, had it been around when he was a kid, he reckons he would have drifted into.

And what would Rawiri say to a young Māori boy growing up in GI today?

"I would tell him to believe that GI isn't going to hold him back and he can do whatever he chooses to do - and it will actually help them at some stage in their lives because there are things about this place that I am so grateful for: being able to see people really comfortably and easily and not be afraid of anything, really. It leaves you a little bit fearless growing up in GI."


What: Cellfish Where and when: Rangatira, Q Theatre; June 13-24