[Interview] Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy on Good Girls and Thick Beats

Photo: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures, Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

To kick off their 2018 season, Checkpoint Theatre presents Thick Beats for Good Girls. To find out what exactly are “thick beats” or “good girls”, I decided to interview writer-performers Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy.

Both of you come from different cultures. What do you think is your culture’s view of what constitutes a good girl?

Jessica A good Jewish girl is respectful. She doesn’t draw too much attention to herself. She accepts the rules taught to her by her community. She is, of course, allowed to have fun, to express herself, to find joy—but she is also very aware of how her community might feel about some types of behaviour being more acceptable than others.

Pooja: A good Gujarati girl knows how to make the perfect rotli. She puts her community before herself and considers how others will see her before making choices in the way she dresses, who she dates and the things she chooses to say.

What was your first encounter when you were told or felt that you did not fit into society’s definition of a good girl?

Jessica:  Before I started making theatre, I was in a Jewish monoculture “bubble”. I went to a Jewish school and had Jewish friends. It was only when I took up student theatre in university that I encountered a much wider array of different personalities. Suddenly I realised there was a wider world out there than just being a good Jewish girl. And out here, I could do whatever I wanted.

Pooja:  When I was about eight years old, my maternal grandfather passed away and it was the first time I was told that women were not allowed to perform certain rites in the funeral. It was then that I realised that I lived in a world where women and men couldn’t do exactly the same things. But I remember thinking, “Who is going to stop me from doing exactly what I want?”

What was the first thick beat that you really resonated with? Why?

Pooja: It was hearing “Rumpshaker” by Wreckx-N-Effect at Killimanjaros on Boat Quay on the 27th of Nov 1998. It was my 18th birthday and I had never before experienced anything quite as euphoric as a whole room full of people chanting to the same beat and the same song.

Jessica:  Kanye West’s album, 808s & Heartbreaks, straddled too many genres for me not to notice it. It was an album of lovesick, heartbroken ballads. I knew that sort of music very well from the blues and roots music I loved. When I realised this music could be teamed with dexterous lyrics, cheek and swagger, I was sold.

While some hip-hop and gangster rap are expressions of protest, there are some that have themes of gratuitous violence and sex. Given your strong interests in social justice, how do you reconcile both sides of the genre?

Jessica: There’s nothing wrong with writing about violence or sex. The problem is performing violence as well as non-consensual sexuality. It is important for people to recognise that all rap artists have the ability to write fiction. Just because their lyrics are presented passionately or crudely doesn’t mean this particular person did those things. But, evoking a world where people behave in this way is important, because it does exist. It holds a mirror to life, where the colour of your skin might determine the education you receive, your treatment by the criminal justice system, and your ability to survive a traffic stop. Like the best literature, rap music forces us to think deeply about our values.

Pooja: If you are living in a community in which you constantly feel the threat of violence and aggression against yourself and against the people that you love, it’s not surprising that the art that you make would reflect this reality.

I think the question we need to ask is: What’s the bigger problem? The violence in the lyrics, or the fact that there are entire communities in that position to begin with? I also think that sometimes when you’re up against a wall, the only way to exact change is to skip the perfunctory polite conversations and use anger instead. Writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde says that anger expressed and translated into action, in the service of our future, is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification. Anger can be a powerful source of information and energy, and that for me is hip-hop at its best.

While both of you are no strangers to theatre, you are primarily known as writers. What is one thing that actors can learn from writers and vice versa?

Pooja: I am discovering the ridiculous amount of stamina you need as an actor!

Jessica: And in particular: actors who can also dance! HOW DO THEY DO IT?

Pooja: There’s also that interesting tension between thinking about the text as a performer and wanting to constantly tweak it as a writer. The thing about wearing both hats is that you can keep shaping the piece infinitely, which can be both exhilarating and exhausting.

Jessica: Any creative process is a beautiful tussle however, and I’m enjoying this internal tussle very much.

As this is a very personal play, are there any personal discoveries about yourself or each other that have arisen in the course of rehearsals?

Jessica: Pooja introduced me to her hairdresser and I love him. Now I have to fly to Singapore every time I want my hair cut.

Pooja: Jess wears print on print with so much swagger, it is ridiculous.

What is one thick beat that everyone should listen to right now?

Jessica: Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself”. It’s an essential reminder for self-love during a time of struggle.

Pooja: Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”. It’s the hope we all need in a difficult time.

Thick Beats for Good Girls runs from 5–22 April 2018 at Drama Centre Black Box, National Library. Tickets from Sistic.
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A First Serious Encounter with Carnatic Music

Swathi Orchestra musicians with their mentors.

Due to my earlier acquaintances with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA), I was recently invited to attend Sangeetha Sagaram, a Carnatic concert by BAA’s Swathi Orchestra. While it was not my first time listening to Carnatic music, my previous encounters have always been in the context of a dance performance. As such, it is my first time simply listening to the music and letting it speak for itself.

Established in 2015 with the aim of promoting the growth of Carnatic music in Singapore, the orchestra consists of some music students from BAA’s education arm, Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society. It comprises 13 performers: five vocalists (Greeshmah Paramesuaran, Keerthana Babu Gopakumar Nair, Lalitha Rajandran, Sathiyan Sahana, Sreelakshimi Subramaniam), two vainikas (Preetashini Nagarajah and Raja Sankar Vasudha Sankar), two violinists (C Abhilash Mohan and Vismitha Rajeev), two flautists (Kalaiselvam Panesilvam and Logindran Govindarasu), and two percussionists (Arul Kumaran Gun Shekeran and Prashanth TR).

The concert has eight items, and as with tradition, it opens with a Varnam. Composed by Tachur Singarachari, it starts with the violin before the mridangam and kanjira enter with a strong rhythm. Such a counterpoint encapsulates the beauty of Carnatic music—the instruments have a distinct function, and while the different timbres and rhythms played appear to be in conflict, they somehow come together quite beautifully.

In “Sri Sakala Ganadhipa” by Balamuralikhrishna, which is a devotional song that invokes Ganesha, Hanuman, and Sri Krishna, we have a meditative invocation by the flute. That is mirrored by the vocalists in the starting portion, before picking up the pace of what turned out to be a vibrant and delightful song.

Speaking of vocalists, “Paripalayamam” by Swathi Thirunal, a famous Maharajah in the 19th century, best illustrates the difficulties that the vocalists have to deal with. This devotional may appear simple with its repetitions, but the singers have to be absolutely stable in maintaining the tempo, and not be carried away by the intoxicating drumming. Furthermore, the vocal ornamentations, such as the bending and oscillations of the notes, seemed to be subtler in this piece. However, I am happy to report that vocalists managed to meet the demands quite admirably.

My favourite piece of the whole repertoire has to be “Kapali” by Papanasam Sivan as various sections of the ensemble are given a little solo to show off their musicianship. The song starts off with a relatively simple but soulful melody. But the mettle of the musicians was soon tested as there are a few quick passages that required some coordination across the various sections, and they were handled with aplomb.

While it is generally known that musicians are required to improvise within certain constraints, it was impossible to tell which sections were actually improvised as they all seemed so intricate and well-coordinated. Perhaps, that is a testament to the skill of this young orchestra, as the concert leaves any outsider wishing they had more knowledge of what was going on, or the meaning of the words, so that they could appreciate it at a deeper level.

Swathi Orchestra is certainly off to a good start, and one hopes that it will grow and continue to nurture the next generation of local Carnatic musicians.

Sangeetha Sagaram was performed on 18 March 2018 at Goodman Arts Centre Black Box.

[Flash Theatre Review] Much Ado About Very Little

History is contingent and written by the victors—so what?

Blood & Rose Ensemble

Shakespeare’s Wild Sisters Group

25 February 2018

Esplanade Theatre Studio

23–25 February 2018

To illustrate the contingency of history, this production is shot through with meta-theatricality.

Several art forms [Foley sound effects, Shuang Huang (双簧), movements from Chinese opera, pop music, etc.] are employed to continuously highlight the performativity of the piece as well as the history of War of the Roses.

While it is generally intriguing and entertaining, the novelty of it fades after a while. Yes, in some senses, history and life as a whole is contingent—so what? It’s much ado about very little.

Furthermore, the lightness of touch erases the humanity of the characters, which what makes Shakespeare’s Henry VI part 3 and Richard III interesting.

You don’t need two hours to tell us that out lives are contingent and—in the grand scheme of things—our desires, struggles, and strife are petty.