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Baggage Check

  • August 22, 2006

By Amir Hafizi

Break-ing (Ji Po) Ka Si Pe Cah, at first glance, looks like an ‘Osman, Mutusamy, Lai Kok Seng’ production. You know, a forced ‘muhibbah’ project. Just like in those text books we used in school.

They even mention it in their website, touting it as an “inter-cultural collaboration” between three theatre directors — Jo Kukathas, Namron and Loh Kok Man — “each with their [sic] own distinct style and from different cultural backgrounds.”

“The production goes beyond race, gender or age, really,” says Jo. “Sure, race and cultural background is part of it. But it’s not everything. It’s more about the language we use when we perform. I think we share a similar language when we do that. It’s deeper than linguistics.”

Deeper than linguistics, beyond just mere language, yes. However, like it or not, language is indeed an important factor in defining these directors and their works.

Kok Man is a respected director of experimental plays in the Chinese-language theatre scene; even film director Tsai Ming Liang has heard of him and had asked him a few years ago to teach theatre in Tsai’s hometown, Kuching. Namron, a popular writer­director-actor (he was the bilal in Gubra), had set his works in various Malay regional dialects, for example, loghat kelate in Gedebe and loghat perlih in matderihkolaperlih. Jo, of course, is a founding member of Instant Café Theatre (ICT), which was thought to have gotten away with a long run of political satires simply because they were in English. DBKL caught up with the company eventually, but hey, it is still around.

Stronger than DNA

“Other people would always label you,” says Kukathas. “I am labelled. I must do verbal English comedy. Some people say it’s a style. Well, it’s not my style, not what I aspire to do. Somebody once said, ‘once you have a style, you’re dead’. We’ve fought this from the very beginning.”

They might not like it, but that is just the way it is, for now. Language, it seems, is even stronger than DNA when it comes to segregating people. Theatre folk in Malaysia have been lamenting and grousing and bitching about this since God knows how long.

People who go to a RM32 English-language play at The Actors Studio Bangsar might not want to watch a play at Stor Teater DBP even though it’s only RM10. Some would not even know where DBP is, or that DBP has a store where they stage plays. Would you be surprised if the person next to you did not know what DBP stands for?

Namron sees the separation and hopes that this project could contribute in bridging the gap.

“Different people do go to different theatre performances,” he says. “We do get people who only go to Bahasa Malaysia plays, English language plays and Chinese language plays. I hope that by collaborating with each other, some people who only go to certain types of plays can see works in other languages they might be missing.”

Target markets

Now, there’s nothing wrong with people watching what they want. You won’t be arrested for watching the sixth Life Sdn Bhd in a row without going to see a Kelab Kilat play. There is no affirmative action, special quota or Approved Permits in theatre yet.

This is not even a problem to be solved as you couldn’t and shouldn’t force people to go and watch things they do not want to.

It is merely a symptom. An indication. Of what? Racial polarisation? The same baggage that caused the 1969 race riots? Unequal distribution of wealth? Unbalanced education level? Snobbery? I dunno. Do we even care?

“Malay theatre, Chinese theatre and English theatre are preconceived notions. I am not sure it has to do with some baggage the country has,” says Kok Man. “I am not burdened too much about baggage. If l do have baggage, I will put it down, open it and see what’s inside.”

We see the same thing with movies and songs. Senario and Yusof Haslam movies focus generally on a particular market and they do very well there.

If Mandarin or Cantonese entertainment is not profitable, Astro would not have maintained the Dynasty Package for 10 years. They’re also going to add a few more channels to that package soon. Tamil entertainment is also quite popular, with THR Radio filling in that niche quite well.

These businesses become successful by focusing on a specific target market. Same thing with Barisan Nasional, the component parties of which fight for the interests of certain ‘target markets’ as well.

Ways to unite people

What is so different with theatre that people in the scene keeps trying to unite people, who may or may not speak the language in which their works are written, to watch their shows?

“I think it has to do with cost,” says Namron. “If you make movies or music, there are major costs involved which need to be covered. Theatre is relatively inexpensive. That’s why people usually do their experiments in theatre. There are a lot of ways to unite people. It’s a large scope — politics, entertainment, sports, but theatre is possibly one of the cheaper alternatives.”

“We want to bring our audiences together, to socialise, to get to know each other while they watch our play under one roof. We are only suggesting this, though. It may very well be that these people, when they get back home, they would just do their own things. It may be that they wouldn’t even come to the show at all!”

Namron talks about experimenting with uniting their audiences, but the three plays they are presenting are done separately, with each director taking responsibility of his or her own project.

“The final product, the three pieces on stage would be us speaking with each other on the theme,” says Kukathas. “The final performance would be our communication.”

“It also wasn’t an artistic decision, but a matter of commitment,” says Namron. “We knew that the three of us could not go and be at the same rehearsals together because of our other projects. So that’s why it was that way. If we had the budget to pay for everybody, then maybe we would have come up with a different arrangement.”

Even in the same language, there are barriers

Jo, Namron and Kok Man got together after having been involved in Lohan Journey — an ongoing Asian contemporary theatre collaboration project organised by Japan’s Setagaya Public Theatre. Last year, they joined 16 other theatre directors from Thailand, Japan, the Philippines and the United States to produce a project called Hotel Grand Asia.

“While working on the project, Namron, Jo and I realised that we have not worked with each other at all,” says Kok Man. “I suggested that we did and they agreed.”

When they got back to Malaysia, Kok Man took the initiative and got Namron and Kukathas to finally commit their time for the project. It was quite an interesting team-up, what with the different material and styles the three have focused on before in their work.

Namron’s piece, “VV [VVIP]”, is about an executioner and the man scheduled to be executed at 10pm. The story is about what happens before that moment in time.

“My story is not really about language,” says Namron. “It’s about prey and predator. About what happens before somebody pulls the trigger. But from a language standpoint, the two characters would speak to each other in normal Bahasa Malaysia, and when they go into monologues, each would speak in his own dialect. The guy who is about to be executed is from Kelantan and the executioner is from the North.”

His approach struck a chord with Jo, though, who could relate with some of the things in Namron’s piece.

“Even though we are far away ethnically, I can understand his piece,” says Jo. “Maybe because often times, he writes and tells stories of marginal people. It’s very humanistic.”

Her piece is called “Silence, Please” where three women deal with a death and a disappearing body. The language used is English (and a little Tamil), though Jo maintains that the whole piece will deal with communication not just with words.

“It’s not miscommunication, but how to communicate beyond linguistics,” says Jo. “Even in the same language, there are barriers. The piece would see how some of the characters communicate their feelings and thoughts without just relying on words.”

At around 45 minutes, Kok Man’s piece “Repot [Mind+ Mine]” is the longest of the bunch. It is broken down to three parts with the last one incorporating some re­-enactments of P Ramlee’s Antara Dua Darjat.

“I started out with trying to find what language means,” says Kok Man. “This piece is basically the presentation of a report on my findings.”

Taking that into context of the play as a whole, Break-ing (Ji Po) Ka Si Pe Cah may well demonstrate how Malaysians communicate on and through, the stage.

Meanwhile, us divided people can do ourselves a favour by making love with each other and coming up with a new, united generation.

Break-ing (Ji Po) Ka Si Pe Cab runs at Stor Teater DBP from Fri 25 – Sun 27 Aug 2006.


First Published: 22.08.2006 on Kakiseni