Invitation to Luncheon with five actresses

17:00, May 01 2014
Aroha Awarau, left, and actress Tomoko Taouma.
ON STAGE: Luncheon creator Aroha Awarau, left, and actress Tomoko Taouma.

Miyoshi Umeki made waves in 1958 when she became the first Asian person to win an Oscar for her role in the Marlon Brando film Sayonara.

But by the 1970s the Japanese actress was retired and wouldn't be remembered nearly as widely as the likes of Elizabeth Taylor or Katherine Hepburn.

The spotlight is about to fall on her again though when the stage show Luncheon opens at the Basement Theatre.

It's the fictional tale of a lunch attended by the five women nominated for the Best Supporting Actress award in the days before Oscar night in 1958.

Playwright Aroha Awarau says he wanted to make something a bit different.

He's always been fascinated by the era and with Hollywood.


"It was 13 years after the end of World War II and the relationship between Japan and the US was still very volatile.

"Every Hollywood function [Umeki] attended she wore a kimono, showing how proud she was of her culture, during a time when the war was still on many Americans' minds. I imagined what it would be like for her, if she was in a room with the four other actresses who were nominated alongside her.

"Of course it's about the competition and the frocks as well," the Eden Terrace resident says.

Awarau is a senior writer for New Zealand Woman's Weekly and Luncheon is his first play.

It's being directed by Katie Wolfe who is known for her directing and acting roles in shows like Shortland St, Mercy Peak and Go Girls.

Well known New Zealand television and stage actress Jennifer Ward-Lealand will play the role of 1950s actress Elsa Lanchester. "I just want to pinch myself," Awarau says.

"It's amazing to have them but it is also amazing to have them to help Tomoko and [the other actors] who have just graduated."

Tomoko Taouma is playing Umeki and it is the Kingsland resident's acting debut. She is a skilled Hawaiian dancer.

"I'd never thought about acting before. I don't mind dancing in front of people on a stage but I've never acted."

The Oscar winner was also known as Nancy Umeki in Japan. "I had kind of heard the name but I didn't know anything about her," Taouma says.

She was fascinated to discover that Umeki was also known for singing jazz music and says she feels a connection with the actress.

"I'm kind of the same. She moved to America and I came to New Zealand and left my family in Japan."

Luncheon is on at the Basement Theatre, Greys Ave, from May 20 to May 31. Visit for tickets.

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