Real Life

Actress Aroha’s 1970’s Crown Lynn connections

Over the teacups, she’s shining a light on the way we were
Photos: Amalia Osborne

During rehearsals for new Kiwi play The Handlers, a group of established and up-and-coming Māori and Pasifika actors bond as they play roles inspired by the many women who worked at Auckland’s Crown Lynn crockery factory in the 1970s.

The actors portray the mothers, grandmothers and aunties who were part of the urban drift from across Aotearoa and the Pacific to Auckland, where they would work in factories like Crown Lynn – famous for producing the iconic and much-loved teacups and saucers – to provide for their families.

At the heart of the group is actor Aroha Rawson, who plays the matriarchal character of Whero, an aunty-type figure with whom Aroha feels she has a special connection.

“I was born in 1975 and feel like many of my life references as a proud Gen-Xer have their roots in what we have explored in bringing Whero and The Handlers to life,” Aroha says. “I feel a whānau-type connection with Whero. Had I been an adult in that era, I could have easily been living a life just like hers and I would have been just like her.”

Aroha, who has played lead roles on TV’s Mean Mums and Rūrangi, and appeared in films such as Mahana, says she and the other stars of The Handlers have women in their own whānau who moved to Auckland from small towns across Aotearoa for a better life.

Aroha feels blessed to have had a role model like her Aunty Betty.

For Aroha, her aunty Elizabeth Knuckey, fondly known as Betty, moved from Te Puna in Tauranga to Auckland to raise her family and worked at the Tasti factory in West Auckland. For years, she ran the canteen, feeding the workers her famous deep-fried mussels, one of the many delights her whānau remember her for.

“My Aunty Betty, who has now passed, gave me a connection to these women in the play,” Aroha tells. “She was famous for her cooking. She could just as easily welcome you with a fresh chowder as an enormous chocolate log or any kaimoana [seafood] you’d care to name. Betty was proud of her whānau, straight-up if she didn’t like something, and a source of great love and comfort. Especially when she’d squeeze you in big, thick hugs, hold your face in her hands and kiss your cheeks with a big mwah!”

Betty was so much more to Aroha than just an aunty. As a child growing up in Christchurch, Aroha was mainly brought up in the Pākehā world. Her Māori father Owen died when she was two. Aroha and her little sister loved staying at her Aunty Betty’s for holidays. These were her treasured first connections with her Maōri whānau and self.

She explains, “It was the first time I felt the crack-up laughs, warmth and comfort of just being Maōri, hanging out with my cousins and getting spoilt rotten.”

Aroha says acting in The Handlers has been an emotional time for her because it’s a lens into the separation from culture, its impact on urbanised wāhine Māori and Pasifika like her Aunty Betty, and the sacrifices they made to assimilate into the often-unfulfilled promise of a better life.

Written by Māori/Afro-Caribbean playwright Poata Alvie McKree and directed by former Shortland Street actor Amber Curreen, The Handlers is a comedy/drama about a whānau of Māori women working at Crown Lynn. They risk the threat of losing their jobs after they all take time off to attend a tangi [funeral], forcing the production line to come to a halt.

Factory girls: Aroha with The Handlers co-stars Cian Parker and Nastassia Wolfgramm.

Established in 1948, Crown Lynn filled New Zealand houses with locally made homeware. It was well known for its iconic cups and saucers. By the 1960s, it was the largest pottery company in the Southern Hemisphere, producing 15 million pieces a year. However, by the ’80s, the company was in decline and it closed in 1989.

“In te ao Māori, we have a beautiful way of uplifting those that have come before us,” says Aroha. “These women shine a light on the positive values we endeavour to live by – the mana held in our actions – and are a vessel for us to appreciate what they went through for us.”

Off stage, Aroha is also going through a huge personal journey. She moved from Auckland to Tauranga, where she has her tribal and ancestral connections. Since, she’s put her acting career on hold to spend a year committed to learning te reo Māori.

“I didn’t expect to feel so challenged and out of my comfort zone, but in a good way,” she admits. “It was important for me to come home, to learn and study te reo Māori where my Dad’s whānau is.

“The language makes me feel more grounded and settled,” she enthuses. “It opens windows of thought, of possibilities and excitement about not only all there is to learn and grow from in te ao Maōri, but how I might be able to give back to it and what that could look like.”

The Handlers is currently showing at Te Pou Theatre in Auckland.

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