Real Life

Dawn raids talented trio

Retelling the dark chapter in NZ history has brought closure to the theatre whānau

The love for theatre and storytelling runs deep in the Muagututi’a family. Sisters Tanya and Mishelle have performed and sung ever since they were youngsters at their Samoan church in Christchurch – and singing is something the pair find difficult to turn off.

Even during their photoshoot for the Weekly, they break into perfect harmony, making up a song on the spot.

“Singing and performing in our church was serious business,” Tanya tells. “When I was five, I’d sit with my Aunty Lima at the front. She was one of the best singers in the choir and I would sing at the top of my lungs!”

Storytelling is most definitely a family affair and the sisters’ latest project is something particularly close to their hearts.

The pair, together with Tanya’s daughter Talia-Rae Mavaega, are reviving the play Dawn Raids, which tells the story of raids on Pacific homes in the 1970s, when families were brutalised and their loved ones sent back to the islands if it was suspected they had overstayed their visas and work permits. The raids tore families apart and terrorised the community.

In the early hours of the morning police, often with dogs, descended on unsuspecting people’s churches, workplaces and homes, sometimes pulling them from their beds.

The play, written by their good friend, award-winning actor, writer and comedian Oscar Kightley, brings a very human face to the Pasifika families who were traumatised by those events.

Talia-Rae (far right) is taking up her aunt’s pivotal role.

“It’s been a very emotional experience,” says Mishelle. “It’s a very heavy topic for our community.”

Despite feeling a hefty load of responsibility for getting the storytelling right, Tanya, 53, who is producing and co-directing the play, is excited that she gets to enjoy the experience with her sister and daughter by her side.

Mishelle, 55, is working on the project as a story sovereignty co-ordinator and Talia-Rae, 27, plays one of the lead characters.

“We know each other so well,” Mishelle smiles. “We’re straight up with each other and we know how to make things happen.”

Tanya and Mishelle are long-serving members of Pacific Underground, a groundbreaking theatre company formed in Christchurch in 1993 to provide an outlet for Pacific storytellers. For 30 years, they’ve been writing and making theatre, and last year Tanya received a Queen’s Birthday honour, becoming a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to Pacific performing arts.

Flashback: Pacific Underground members in 1994 during the season of Fresh Off the Boat at the Herald Theatre in Auckland. From left: Michael Hodgson, Erolia Ifopo, Tanya, David Fane, Mishelle and Oscar Knightley.

And when Dawn Raids was first performed in 1997, Mishelle played the role of Teresa, the part her niece is now filling.

“There’s a fresh new cast and a whole new generation that bring with them a different lens,” says Mishelle, who loves the fact her niece has stepped into her shoes. “They are helping to keep the conversation going.

“Talia-Rae knows I’m here to help, but she needed to find the role herself. She’s taking the pivotal role and is making it her own.”

Talia-Rae says as an actor, knowing that her aunty originated the role, has been an asset.

“When I get stuck, I imagine what my aunty would do, and that helps a lot,” she shares.

Tanya and Mishelle grew up in Christchurch, and say the impact of the Dawn Raids was felt by all Pacific communities. Their parents, mum Salote and dad Pulusila, met in New Zealand after immigrating from Samoa. They encouraged their daughters to pursue their passions, and Tanya and Mishelle both travelled to the US as teenagers as AFS exchange students.

“Our mother was strong and determined,” recalls Mishelle. “She fought hard for her children to do well. She encouraged us to become exchange students. The experience gave us more confidence to try new experiences.”

They were devastated when Salote died six years ago, leaving 88-year-old Pulusila alone.

Talia-Rae is now her grandfather’s main caregiver, but due to their strong family support system, she is still able to take time out to perform around the country.

“Our entire family understands the life as an actor and theatre producer,” she explains. “If I need to go away for work, we work out a plan.”

The close-knit trio appreciates the importance of being involved in Dawn Raids – even though the New Zealand Government formally apologised last year for what happened, they say the play still has relevance because it addresses issues around racism and tolerance.

Talia-Rae adds, “It’s about an understanding of our Pacific people. This is what happened and this is what we continue to go through.”

Pacific Underground and Auckland Theatre Company’s co-production of Dawn Raids by Oscar Kightley is now on at the ASB Waterfront Theatre in Auckland until September 3. For tickets, visit

Related stories