Loh Kok Man’s Repot (Mind+Mine) (Pic by Loh Kok Man)
MALAYSIA is invoked in a scenic collage of cultures when Tourism Malaysia’s five damsels are paraded as a representation of the country’s ethnic diversity to outsiders.
When we regard this spectacle with highbrow disdain, we lose an appreciation of the wonderfully uncomplicated and alluring character of the image. Simplified in this manner, the country becomes an easily consumed notion that sells well in the global market. So successful has been the image’s tagline, Malaysia, Truly Asia, that even advertising geniuses in the country’s island nemesis look north in envy.
In Break-ing / (Ji Po) / Ka Si Pe Cah, Jo Kukathas, Loh Kok Man and Nam Ron demand far more of their national experience than the rather forced assemblage of cultural symbols represented by the damsels of diversity.
Damsels of diversity (Source: Tourism Malaysia) Indeed, the three directors have noted that ethnicity was not the first thing on their minds when they came together to create the three-in-one play. Their foremost objective was intercultural collaboration. To pursue this goal in earnest, they had to abandon trite understandings of ethnic identity and create a space that they could share, and through which they could explore their cultural selves, each in their own terms. They came up with three pieces that are not related to each other in content or form, but in each instance share a common concern with language.
The directors first worked together as Malaysian members of the transnational Asian Contemporary Theatre Project run by Tokyo’s Setagaya Public Theatre from 2002 to 2005. It was therefore in Japan, and not Malaysia, that the three first collaborated, and came to realise the challenge of language in the intercultural encounter.
Embodied and disembodied voices
Silence, Please by Jo Kukathas opens the play and looks at the disembodied language of three sisters whose mother has just died. The voice of the narrator against the mostly silent sisters invokes a feminine world much in the hands of larger forces: spiritual on the one hand, but also social (people arrive who make claims on the body of the mother — reminiscent of the actions of Islamic officials on the bodies of people posthumously declared Muslim).
Silence, Please by Jo Kukathas (Pic by Loh Kok Man)
Set to the beautifully melancholic music specially composed by Ng Chor Guan, the piece unfolds like a long prose poem. The three sisters glide across the stage invoking the everpresent memories of a language that none of them speak. This lost language is a source of deep feelings as it constitutes at once the sounds that connect them with their mother, and the source of tension between them and the young Tamil-speaking man they encounter. His brief outbursts in Tamil bring to the fore the class and cultural tension of Indianness in Malaysia in a way that strained for expression in the Instant Café Theatre Company’s 2008 production Hero.
In contrast, the second piece, Repot (Mind+Mine), looks at the different ways in which language can be embodied, whether in the name of cultural identity, pragmatic goals and fashion, or by dictate. Loh Kok Man changes the mood of the play swiftly in a chatty fast-paced piece that recalls Krishen Jit’s direction in 1996 of the multilingual Work – The Malaysian Way.
Playing Chinese Malaysians from all walks of life, the actors unfold a remarkable complexity and variety in the use of the different registers of Chinese, some English, and the national language Malay, the latter often awkwardly if not falsely embodied because of its overdetermined official status.
The suggestion of intercultural awkwardness is quickly thrown off course when the actors mimic the black-and-white film projected behind them, featuring the legendary Malaysian actor P Ramlee. As the actors perform to the well-known bass voice of Ramlee, their Chinese bodies are accentuated. The juxtaposition has its hilarious moments, and altogether invokes a range of feelings, from nostalgia and connection to alienation.
The third piece, WIP, to mean work-in-progress, is entirely in Malay; but it is not the language itself that is explored as much as its use as a tool of repression and violence.
Nam Ron’s WIP (Pic by Loh Kok Man) Nam Ron’s treatment detracts radically from the idea of the Malay language as the bearer of a refined albeit humble culture, a notion whose origins lie in the British colonial era. He focuses on the fraught relationship of subservience that develops between a political detainee and his captor. Intensely verbal, it is as if the body of the detainee is assaulted not by physical abuse alone, but through the use of the Malay language as it has been appropriated by Malaysia’s authoritarian state and its functionaries. Nam Ron’s work is based on research he did on the testimonies of torture victims in this country.
Language and intercultural interaction
Developed over the period 2006-2008, the intercultural in Break-ing is not found in the collaboration between an Indian, Chinese, and Malay director as the ethnicised public sphere in Malaysia would have us believe. Rather, the three directors have brought together on a single stage the English, Chinese and Malay language theatre worlds. Language-based theatre communities have evolved somewhat separately, with fairly distinct artistic proclivities, performers, and audiences. Break-ing demonstrates both a method as well as the interesting creative possibilities that lie in an intercultural effort involving the different theatres.
Throughout the play, languages and bodies become entwined and disengaged in creative ways. We find out just how viscerally language embodies intercultural interaction, perhaps as much as — if not more than — notions of difference like race, complexion and so forth. Language may lie at the heart of ethnic identity. In Jo’s piece, the English-speaking sisters and the Tamil-speaking man are radically different creatures, though both would be Indian in the Malaysian context, and possess shared cultural elements (like Hinduism in this instance).
As she contemplated the idea of Break-ing, Jo noted that intercultural collaboration — usually understood in inter-national terms in contemporary theatre — could just as well be usefully explored within Malaysia. This would bring the exploration to a level below the nation-state, under the skin of the country, if you like. Hence Kok Man’s piece brings out individual struggles and accommodation with official strictures and cultural norms. At the same time, it disrupts set associations of language with an ethnic body.
Take for instance the character Ram, a young man of Indian descent who is fluent in Chinese; he is played by an ethnic Chinese actor. Ram demonstrates his Indian-ness on demand by belting out a Bollywood tune, thereby producing the hilarious sight of a Chinese body passionately filled with Hindi song (and dance!).
Sukania Venugopal in Silence, Please by Jo Kukathas (Pic by Loh Kok Man)
By collaborating on Break-ing, Jo, Kok Man and Nam Ron have created an exciting and egalitarian creative platform for intercultural interaction in an ethnically fragmented and authoritarian political landscape. Their strength lies in their drive to forge theatre collaboration interculturally rather than force intercultural relationships.
Break-ing therefore acknowledges what is untranslatable in the same breath as it may celebrate cultural difference. The directors thereby break simplistic notions about what intercultural collaboration means, and successfully pose questions rather than provide neatly packaged answers — for that we have the damsels of diversity.
Sumit Mandal is a historian at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Break-ing is for him part of an ongoing conversation with the directors Jo Kukathas, Loh Kok Man and Nam Ron, initiated with the Asian Contemporary Theatre Project, which he followed closely from 2003-2004. He believes the play to be a significant reflection of social change and protest in Malaysia that is anticipated and driven by cultural politics. This essay was written for the programme of the play to be staged at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre from 25 to 28 Sept 2008, and is reproduced here with his permission.