The Public Ineffectual

Rey Buono has taught theatre for over 30 years in USA and Singapore, and presently in Malaysia. He had co-directed The Merchant of Venice with Jo Kukathas, and directed Gross Indecency and The Baltimore Waltz (which was also censored in parts by DBKL) for The Instant Café Theatre. In this article, first published in the March 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge, he is saddened by the fact that our artists are allowing themselves to be “colonised” by our authorities…

(All italicised text are excerpted from ‘Sitting the Public Intellectual in the Margins’, by Krishen Jit, An Uncommon Position, Published by Contemporary Asian Arts Centre, 2003.)

There are signs that artists are making febrile lurches into the social and political arena. Some have even seized the moment in delineating an activist intellectual posture precipitated by the recent political and economic volatility of the country… They have been shocked into recognizing the chimera of an apparently non-political stance. They have come to apprehend that to be non political is to betray a silent acquiesce of the status quo. As the politically-activist linguist Noam Chomsky once remarked, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

The solution that Five Arts came up with to the problem of censorship posed and imposed by the DBKL licensing authorities to their 2004 production of Election Day by Huzir Suleiman was basically to do nothing. The company lurched febrilly backward and largely out of the political arena some Malaysian artists had been trying to seize and delineate for over a decade.

Opening night was a sad evening. One got the feeling, even before entering the theatre, that one was attending a wake for a certain time in Malaysian Theatre beginning with the founding of Instant Cafe in 1989 and ending with the banning of The First 2nd Annual Bolehwood Awards – the Directors Cut in 2003. The feverish patient had died a slow, lingering death, and was finally out of its misery.

As at all wakes, words were said, but they didn’t relieve the presence of the corpse in the room. Relatives came and paid their respects, but the tears were actually few and the words rang hollow.

Coming up the escalator at Bangsar Shopping Centre that night, I knew from earlier conversations that the death had occurred, but I was still hoping that there might be some last possibility. Classic denial. In the lobby of Actors Studio, the death certificates hung on the wall – large sheets listing the cuts required by the authorities and the accommodating adjustments the author had made to his play. Some of the audience scanned them briefly, but few paid much attention. After you read the first two or three items, you got the gist. Better to go meet your friends, have a coffee, chit chat.

More and more artists now stand at the margins of society, which the scholar and thinker, Edward Said, advocates as the most powerful locale of the Public Intellectual. Ensconced in the margins, the artist has the space to develop a creatively critical stance. Relieved of the thrall of mainstream institutional dependence, the artists can now risk going too far and can actually find out how far they can go (T.S. Eliot)

While DBKL’s censorship was commented on extensively by Marion and Krishen in the programme, no mention of it was made before, during, or after the performance. I presume this was so as not to interrupt the flow or to distance the audience from what was happening on the stage. The audience was merely informed of a discussion to be held afterward. Then, Jo Kukathas made her entrance.

It is safe to say that, on many levels, Jo’s acting was primarily about how far she could go, not about the dramatic matter of Election Day. Clearly, she was not comfortable on the stage. Her performance failed to develop dramatic shape and rhythm. She was all over the place; sometimes in character, sometimes not; sometimes focusing on the imaginative present, sometimes focusing on the changes in the text; on two occasions, grabbing an on-stage copy of the script so as not to go up on her lines. Anyone who knows Jo as an actress recognized she was not able to deliver her professional best. She was lost and befuddled: staggering from one chair to another, from one revision to another, grasping at light bulbs that lit and went out. Her performance was unwitting Ionesco – farcical, absurd. It should have been Brecht.

For the audience also, the performance was about “how far can it go?” All of us were watching and waiting for the cuts and substitutions Instead of”Dr. Mahathir”, “Our Visionary Leader”, Instead of”Samy Vellu”, a “short dark skinned man.” PAS, “the religious party” etc. No matter how hard one tried to focus on the actual play, the cuts upstaged and upset every moment, every line. Our minds were clicking and ticking off each splice, each mangling, aware not only of the change, but registering what it had been changed from – and sometimes watching the desperation of the actor trying to force her voice and body around each new phrase and rhythm. Yes, more than once in the evening we felt Jo’s anger, not her character’s.

Huzir has a penchant for irony and few Malaysian plays are as ironic as Election Day, in which the narrator, an Indian, is a Special Branch operative, spying on his two political activist housemates., a Chinese and a Malay. . . Huzir elicits laughter while the audience rues over the consequences and implications of our political behaviours.

What happened to Election Day is that it got colonised by DBKL. The police and bureaucrats who sit on the Review Committee were aided and abetted by local “theatre activists” also on the committee, such as ST Bala and Jin Shamsuddin, in their invasion, subversion, and disfigurement of the theatrical landscape. The Bandaraya Raj assumed complete command, displaying all the arrogance and insensitivity attributed to the British when they ran KL. The local inhabitants petitioned, re-petitioned, agonised, complained, re-complained, fretted and fumed, but, in the end, like all good colonials, did what they were told.

The implication of Huzir’s rewriting is political indeed. His public performance of the act of self-censorship betrays the all-too-frequent spinelessness of the Malaysian theatrati. Other local practitioners have meekly submitted in the past, but they have kept their surrenders to themselves. Huzir put it out there for all to see. He came out of the closet for what he is: a playwright with little regard for the texts he gives to others to perform. How many words will never be uttered from future Malaysian stages because of those white sheets on the lobby wall? How many future playwrights will censor their own work before it even gets submitted to the authorities. After all, it costs a lot to write down an inappropriate thought in Kuala Lumpur. You can’t even put up a poster until your script receives official approval from every last one of the apparatchiks on the committee.

Even if somewhat unintentionally, the presence of what Aristotle called civitas or civil responsibility is noticeably growing among a group of artists. The most functional, if not the best artists, stand apart from society as they observe social and cultural landscapes.  Theirs is the viewpoint of the committed outsider.

After the performance, some of the opening night audience remained behind for a discussion. It was a hugely sympathetic group and they gamely rallied around Jo and Marion who took the stage. (Krishen and Huzir did not, although Krishen did sit in the back.) The feeling in the room was that Five Arts had done the right thing by performing the show with the cuts. These performances, the two clearly exhausted artists said, were part of a “strategy” to reach out to the general public and make a statement against censorship. Rather than cancel the show, let people see what was going on. Contradicting this somewhat was Jo’s embarrassment at muffing lines and using the book. She promised to get the revisions “into my body” so the rhythm of her delivery would not be affected in the future. No one brought up the alternative of performing the show as Huzir originally wrote it in defiance of the committee. No one spoke out against the “theatre activists” who had taken their orange markers to the script and vandalised it. Mark Teh mentioned that previous battles with DBKL surrounding Vagina Monologues and Baltimore Waltz were far in the past. Get over it, this is the present. This time, things will be different. Everyone nodded piously. The session was all support, no protest.

“Make sure to sign the petitions and drop your comments in the cookie jars in the lobby on your way out.”

We all know, of course, that nothing will be different. The new DBKL revision committee has made things much worse than ever. Because local doyens, artistes, and activists have been co-opted to serve on the committee, Bandaraya can now say that they have creative as well as political justification. The activist-censors are largely beholden to the government for their status and success. The bureaucrats are beholden for their paychecks. No one gives a damn about freedom of expression, or artistic integrity. The committee will make certain its collective ass is not exposed.

So what can we expect in the future? More submissions and more submission.  Our Malaysian artists, even the best and most respected of them would rather not fight City Hall when real risk or sacrifice is required. If Bandaraya wants us to make changes, we will make changes. We will perform those changes. We will object, but we will acquiesce. It is for the government to define the margins. It is for us to stay within them.

Maybe, someday, some little theatre company, will stand up to DBKL and say, in the words of ee cummings, “There is some shit I will not eat.” Maybe that group will pay the price Huzir Sulaiman, Krishen Jit, Jo Kukathas, and Marion D’Cruz refused to pay on the 12th of February. It will be far harder for them because Five Arts chose to go on with this show.

Jo failed to mention that things are already different for her own theatre company. It’s hard to see how Instant Café will be able to produce its trademark political satire with Election Day as a precedent. ICT’s rice-bowl has been cracked, at least for the near future.

Who would have imagined that Kuala Lumpur, generally regarded as a politically apathetic city, would emerge as the region’s most prominent theatre of political satire. Since the advent of Instant Café Theatre (ICT) more than a decade ago, the theatre of political satire has grown progressively from its origins as a niche entertainment into an enterprise foreshadowing a commercial industry.

DBKL has given new meaning to the term “Artist Colony”. No subversive thoughts or inappropriate laughter allowed. Please place your protest in the cookie jar on your way out.

(This article first appeared in the March 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge.)

First Published: 04.03.2004 on Kakiseni

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