Teachers, Mothers & Sugar Daddies

Malaysia Theatre Awards: Waterworks

If you think the Chinese-language theatre in Malaysia is a tad melodramatic, you should have seen their awards show last Saturday Jan 31 at Matic. It seems that we cry at just about anything, whether suffering or celebrating or sitting down absolutely unprovoked.

Leading the waterworks was O-Hi Team producer Rom Lew, who was one of the ten awarded for backstage contribution to the theatre in 2003. Together with director Ryon Lee, they have been responsible for the box­ office busting gay play Angels, which won them all the major awards last year.

Here’s a summary of Rom’s thank you speech: Dad passed on when they were still young. Mum brought all seven up. She couldn’t come down from lpoh because no one could drive her down. He is sorry that his work in theatre prevents him from earning enough to give any money to her. She closes one eye to it. And so, dressed in a white shirt with embroidered flower and a big red butterfly brooch holding up a beige knitted scarf, Rom told us, with a heartbreaking crack in the voice, that he just wanted to say something that he has never said in his entire existence: “Mama, wo ai ni.”

That is nothing compared to Miss Soon Choon Mee, who was given the Lifetime Achievment Award. Miss Soon was the drama teacher at the Malaysian Institute of Arts – the only full time drama teacher in fact, beside the head of the department Mr Leong Chi Sin, who took the same award alast year. Practically all the winners at the awards that night had been a student of theirs at some point. The Malaysian Institute of Art has unfortunately discontinued their theatre programme, in spite of its importance to the scene. But Miss Soon, who came back to Malaysia from Taiwan with a degree in theatre 16 years ago, is now retiring from theatre. Before that, she wants to thank everybody. She took a bow before her husband at least three times during her speech. She thanked her colleagues too. And then she tried naming all her students, but by the fifth name, she just couldn’t go on anymore.

The only one truly giddy with unbridled joy must be Kiew Suet Kim, who won Best Drama of 2003 for her Mandarin adaptation of Chekov’s The Bear. She is the giddy Front of House Manager at The Actors Studio. Her play was also nominated in seven categories, including Best Director, at the BOH Cameronian Arts Award 2003. The first time director, all dolled up in a muted gold number by Keg Ng, said exuberantly, “I’m happy already. Is enough already.”

The Awards, which was called the Pingstage Theatre Awards last year, has been renamed as Malaysian Theatre Awards. Goh You Ping, who is the founder of Pingstage, which also produces plays and educational programmes, says he hopes eventually the awards will extend to the other languages – that is, when they find enough sponsors. Meanwhile, he believes that the Chinese-language theatre has survived great odds in this country – lack of government support, lack of public support, lack of parental support – and these unsung heroes need to be sung about. Alright now, somebody give the man an award!

Life Sdn Bhd: by Faridah INC.

I can’t think of anyone more qualified to direct a play about Life. Life in Malaysia, in all its irony. Faridah Merican, who has acted in the 60s for free, and then directed commercials for filthy sums of money; who has fought her creative battles, her DBKLs, her high-profile lovers; who has survived a director husband, and then married another; who has watched her theatre drown, won respect from enemies, and inspired everyone else, must have a lifetime’s worth of tales to dispense with. But instead of dispensing her stories, she humbly gets her actors (Patrick Teoh, Gavin Yap, Susan Lankaster, Ari Ratos, Low Wei Jun, et al} to share theirs, while she weaves them all together with her ballsy wisdom. Life Sdn Bhd is on this weekend at The Actors Studio Bangsar and tickets are going fast.

lruvar: Well intentioned but…

For the first time at lstana Budaya, a Tamil-language play is being staged. It is called Iruvar, which means ‘the two of us’, written by theatre veteran S.T. Bala. The play examines an important issue: Working Mothers, dealing with the women trying to find equality. It seems noble enough: A husband is trying to get his wife to stop working, but she wants to help to ease his burden. {Why must it always be HIS burdens? Why couldn’t she work just because she wants to?)

I am, however, more than a little disturbed by the publicity material, which reads:

“It is undeniable fact [sic] that women have become leaders in creating world history. It is admirable that women have become equivalent to men professionally and financially in a short period of time.

“On the other hand, more social problems have increased, divorce cases have increased, children’s health and education have deteriorated, and more juvenile cases have been reported. Are we fighting against nature? Are working women entirely to be blamed for this phenomenon?

“The question that arises deserve to be seriously considered.”

I don’t know about you, but I am truly keen to know which statistics the playwright had used to make the connection between social problems and working mothers.

LANDMARKS: Asian Boys Vol.2: Territorial gays

Here’s another attempt at presenting a façade of equal opportunity. Last year, Singapore PM Goh Chok Tong raised some eyebrows and just as many pinkies when he announced that gays will be allowed in civil service in the Republic. Given the number of gay-friendly (if not outright gay) establishments scattered over the island, Singapore is already viewed as the South East Asian San Francisco. In fact, so many gay men are probably working in the civil sector and proudly contributing to their country already that their being finally allowed seems moot. The question it begs is really: What? Can you do anything without them now? But then, PM Goh went on to say that sodomy is still going to be outlawed as the general population still doesn’t seem quite ready for it.

Which is strange, because they didn’t seem to worry about public opinion when they banned chewing gums. This seems the remarks of a man desperate to please everyone, and pleasing no one in the end. But some believe that the repeal of the sodomy laws will only be a matter of time. To Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at, it    doesn’t make a difference. In one of the eight vignettes within his new play, a character asks, “It’s not a crime to be gay but a crime to have sex? It’s like having lungs but getting arrested for breathing.”

Alfian Sa’at, who just graduated with a medical degree, is known for a wit as incisive as a scalpel. Some of his recent plays have even been accused for being too smart for their own good. But to his credit, Alfian knows how to turn an issue on its head. Bi-lateral relation between Singapore and Malaysia, the War on Terrorism, post­ colonial colonialisation, Alfian’s ideas constantly tread on minefields, and always makes for interesting explosions.

Yet, in Asian Boys Vol.2, all the politicising becomes obvious only in one segment. Elsewhere in the other seven short plays, his stories reveal a big heart and a more subversive agenda. By titling it Landmarks and setting the plays in parts of Singapore like Katong, Raffles City, Toa Payoh, and Ann Siang Hill, Alfian is marking out the collective territorial consciousness of gay Singaporeans, asserting their undeniable presence. Mothers, sons, sugar daddies, fag hags and lovers, everyone finds a place in Alfian’s world.

According to director Ivan Heng, Volume 2 is the wiser, truer, deeper counterpart to the loud and proud humour of Volume 1, which was staged four years ago when Alfian was 22. But it still has a nice, sexy funny bone in it. For us in Malaysia, who have been suffering from an overdose of tragic gay plays, Landmarks might just be the antidote. Buy, beg or exchange sleazy favours, just get yourself there.

First Published: 06.02.2004 on Kakiseni

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