[Theatre Review] More Than Fist-Pumping and Finger-Flicking

Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy navigate the complexities of their lives and how hip-hop figured in it.

Photo: Crispian Chan / Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Thick Beats for Good Girls
Checkpoint Theatre
17 April 2018
Drama Centre Black Box
5–22 April 2018

I never had any affection towards hip-hop. While I appreciate its origins in protest, self-expression, and instantiation of one’s existence, the modern ones that are popular enough to be broadcast constantly seem to be excessive.

Furthermore, whatever ingenuity that reside in the lyrics are often drowned out by brash beats. The majority that pulsate to them seem to do so solely for the largely repetitive beats, and only hardcore fans would bother to look at the lyrics.

As such, it is no surprise that my arms are folded as Checkpoint Theatre’s Thick Beats for Good Girls began. But as the show unfolded, so do my arms.

The show, co-written and performed by Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy, does have its share of railing against society and middle-finger-flicking. But at its heart, it takes particular instances of their personal struggles, and how hip-hop serves as a refuge and an outlet of expression, and compels the audience to consider how this has wider resonances.

The chief merit of the show is its ability to go from relaying very personal anecdotes, such as discovering one’s sexuality vis-à-vis the strictures of their religious upbringing, to speaking about the oppression of the Jews throughout history—a particularly arresting moment by Bellamy.

What is refreshing is their critique of politics, and the illiberalism of certain people who are purportedly advocating for social justice. While the duo do not make an overt connection, the parallels between the prescriptivity of their religions stipulating what makes a good girl, and insinuations of what makes a good feminist (to some, listening to hip-hop is definitely not an ideal trait) are striking.

Through the oft-quoted line of the show in which the pair asks whether one’s feminism is big enough to encompass them, they advocate for a more inclusive movement through an intersectional lens.

While this leaves open the questions of what constitutes an intersection and whether a movement must truly account for all intersections, even if they conflict with each other, the pair must be thanked for introducing an often overlooked nuance in the debate.

With this being a very personal show, it is buoyed up by the friendship that the performers share. While Pooja Nansi, started off somewhat cautiously, she soon got into the groove (what is the hip-hop equivalent?) of things. From then on, there is an ease of interaction on stage and both happily role-play various characters in each other’s anecdotes, which makes it all the more entertaining.

That said, like the music they love, the show does have its excesses. While I appreciate the conscious effort having parallel stories for every theme, not all of them are as impactful as the ones presented by the other. Additionally, the choice of transition in which the performers ask whether good girls should do certain things starts off as an intellectual provocation, but it soon turns into a trope. After a while, one stops listening to the question and simply waits for the next anecdote.

Even though my arms are unfolded, one will not see me gyrate on the dance floor or pump my fist in the air anytime soon. However, if there is an incidental encounter with hip-hop music, I would be happy to strain my ears and tease out the thick message within the thick beats.   

Other Reviews

The soundtrack of their youthby Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life! 

Sisters are doing it for themselvesby Christian W. Huber, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

‘Thick Beats for Good Girls’ Keeps it 100by Patricia Tobin, ArtsEquator

Thick Beats for Good Girlsby Naeem Kapadia, CrystalWords

Thick Beats for Good Girls: A Love Letter to Hip-Hop | Singapore Theatre Reviewby Arman Shah, The Everyday People

Review: Thick Beats for Good Girls by Checkpoint Theatreby Richard Neo, Bak Chor Mee Boy

Thick Beats for Good Girls: Breaking Down Social Constructs with Hip Hop by Teo Dawn, Popspoken

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[Theatre Review] A Love Letter to Waterloo Street

Four Horse Road
The Theatre Practice
12 April 2018
42, 48, and 54 Waterloo Street
4–28 April 2018

Ghosts in school hallways; a showdown at a Chinese restaurant; a drunk man believing himself to be Jesus; mutinous sepoys—these are some of the 11 stories regaled by The Theatre Practice about Waterloo Street and its immediate vicinity.

Performed in various nooks and crannies of Centre 42, Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore, and The Theatre Practice (situated at 42, 48, and 54 Waterloo Street respectively), Four Horse Road is playwright Jonathan Lim’s love letter to the area where he grew up, studied, and occasionally worked.

In these stories, Lim employs some artistic license in creating vignettes that are inspired by true stories and historical facts about the surrounding area.

With several groups of people walking around three relative small compounds, it is nothing short of a logistical marvel that I did not encounter human traffic problems or delays in the various performances.

The novelty of some of the lesser known stories is complemented by generally excellent performances of the cast (full cast list). Two standout performers are Andrew James Mowatt and Johnny Ng.

Mowatt plays Dr Van der Hoot, a teacher of Dutch descent who is staying at the Nantina Home for the Aged and Destitute, and Major Wortmann, an SS officer.

For the former, the audience enters the scene on the pretext of a monthly tea session and we are supposed to spend time with the residents. We are allowed to choose which resident to converse with based on how comfortable we are in the language the resident converses in. As Dr Van der Hoot, Mowatt exudes a friendly but slightly shifty demeanour, as we later find out that he had to leave Singapore due to a scandal with a student. Despite facing a generally reticent group of visitors, Mowatt keeps the conversation alive, interspersing some jokes with his scripted lines.

Where one really feels Mowatt’s presence is when he is the German officer, Major Wortmann. In the May Blossom restaurant (a lovely set-up done at the courtyard of Centre 42), Major Onishi (Johnny Ng) and Major Wortmann are important guests, given that their armies currently have the upperhand in the war. Wortmann is stony-faced and occasionally accepts the drink offered to him by a Japanese girl. Suddenly, his eyes flickers and he catches sight of me sitting at the opposite table. This compels me to immediately look away, not wanting to draw unnecessarily attention to myself, much less a Nazi officer.

Onishi soon enters, but the festivities do not last long. We soon learn that the restaurant has been infiltrated by the anti-Japanese resistance, and they soon ambush Onishi, pressuring him to release their leader, Lai Teck. Despite being surrounded, Johnny Ng as the Japanese officer exudes a certain knowing calmness that unsettles everyone. He plays with the intonation of his text, turning it into a veiled threat, thus ratcheting up the tension. This is an excellent display of an actor milking the text for all its worth.

On the whole, this scene tempo of this scene is taut and we soon find ourselves at the heart of the conflict. As an indication, I started flinching and preparing to cover my ears when the guns are pulled, thinking that the actors would fire blanks. It is only after leaving the scene that my scant military knowledge reminds me that authorities would never approve of actors firing blanks at such close range because there is still a high risk of severe injury. Such is the general immersive nature of the show.

Alas, there are some weakness. Rather than enumerate them, I will respond to Corrie Tan’s criticisms of the show as a starting point. After all, when the usually even-tempered Corrie Tan thoroughly excoriates a show, any local critic worth his or her salt must take notice.

To unjustly sum up her points: there is an imbalance of representation in terms of languages and characters; characters from minority races are often reduced to tropes; it sidesteps any political issues and generally perpetuates the myth that Singapore has successfully overcome the barriers of multicultural interaction.

Had this show meant to represent the history of Singapore rather than a neighbourhood, I would wholeheartedly agree with Tan’s critique.

First, Tan’s point about an imbalance of languages represented is heavily based on her and her friend’s experience. As such, I believe that she slightly overstates her case. Her sheer comfort with the languages is due to her linguistic talent.

It is important to note that the Southern Chinese languages are not completely mutually intelligible. Her point about the language composition of the show privileging the Chinese may apply to those of an older generation who are conversant in two Chinese languages, while having some knowledge of the others. However, being half a generation younger than Ms Tan, I do struggle with the Southern Chinese languages and have no idea what the character is saying, save for a few words.

That said, there is no reason for the convent school students to be conversing in Mandarin, as they worry about there being an Orang Minyak in the hallway. The milieu that they would have grown up in would mean that it is highly probable that they would be speaking in English. With this change, there will be three scenes that will be completely in English (assuming that you choose to speak to Irwan or Dr Van der Hoot when you visit the Nantina Home).

With regard to the imbalance of characters represented, that would depend on the availability of historical research on places such as the Bras Basah gaol. Even if there were lack of credible historical records, I agree with Tan that the non-Chinese characters are often linked to ghosts and other mystical exotica.

The criticism of the show’s reluctance to address political issues and perpetuating a myth of complete inter-racial social cohesion may be true, but is it a fair one? It is tough to decide.

For starters, despite the scale of the production, it has the modest aims of telling the audience lesser known stories about the place and impress upon them that our history is more colourful than we think. In the programme notes, director Kuo Jian Hong writes that the show “paints of colourful and complex tapestry [sic] of Singapore’s cultures, thus enriching our understanding of the past and allowing us to reflect on what it truly means to belong to a place.” Additionally, playwright Jonathan Lim implores his audience to “please, please remember [the stories].”

Hence, it is clear that the show is not focused on interrogating, as Tan puts it, “contemporary structures of race, ethnicity and language.” Besides, to do so, one need not focus extensively and exclusively on history as this show has done. Should a critic then criticise something that is not clearly within the aims of the production? Personally, I struggle with that question because saying that a show should stretch its ambitions beyond what it has presented can be a valid point.

Yet, one still can ask, what is the point of remembering these stories beyond personal edification? Why these particular stories? If remembering history is so important, why did the playwright blend fact and fiction in the various scenes? How does having a knowledge of history allow one to understand what it “truly means to belong to a place”, especially when there is a distinct disjuncture between the past and present in Singapore?

The show leaves those questions out. The closest thing to painting a complex history that the production achieves is a throwaway line by a Japanese Mamasan in a scene where a gaggle of prostitutes regale the events of the 1915 Sepoy mutiny in all its camp glory. It goes along the lines of let it be known that the Japanese and Singaporeans fought together to bring peace to the country—a weak attempt to address the perception of the Japanese are evil in the past due to its invasion of Singapore in WWII.

As quickly as that line is forgotten, it is likely that these stories will share the same fate. But this does not preclude a fun night out with the great cast of Four Horse Road.

Selected Reviews

Four Horse Road: A fun take on Waterloo Street’s historyby Benson Ang, The Straits Times Life!

‘Four Horse Road’: buried histories and blind spotsby Corrie Tan, ArtsEquator

Patchwork Histories by Jevon Chandra, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

Four Horse Road 四马路by Teo Dawn 

Review: 四马路 Four Horse Road by The Theatre Practiceby Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Dancing Beautifully on a Knife’s Edge

Potong is a gem of a play that deals with several issues subtly and sensitively.

Potong
Teater Ekamatra
22 March 2018
Malay Heritage Centre Auditorium
21–25 March 2018

Theatre exists in many guises and is constantly undergoing tremendous amounts of change. Despite the constant flux in tastes and aesthetics, a common aspect that often recurs is the theatre-makers’ appetite for addressing social issues.

However much we must applaud their valiant efforts, we often get pieces that screech at the choir; spread thin in trying to cover as many issues as possible; or renege on its promise to present, as Scottish theatre critic Joyce McMillan puts it, “a new and original version of the world.”[1]

Johnny Jon Jon’s Potong is none of these. Not only does he avoid the usual traps, his ambitions of addressing issues of dementia, traditions, and gender identity in a single play is akin to navigating a minefield on a pogo stick, while being blindfolded, with one leg in a cast, and his dominant hand being tied behind his back. For some reason, he navigates it without a scratch.

His plot revolves around Adam, who is of mixed heritage, being asked by his mother to return to Singapore from Australia to go through two rites of passages: circumcision and National Service. He is tasked to find his uncle, who turned out to be a transvestite, and he also discovers that his grandmother is suffering from dementia. Apart from dealing with the culture shock and finding out about his extended family, Adam struggles with fulfilling his mother’s wishes. Perhaps the biggest shock would be finding out the actual reason behind his mother insisting that he goes to Singapore, and geographical distance does not preclude similarities in circumstances.

Despite the gravity of the issues addressed, Johnny exhibits his razor-sharp wit in filling the lines with double entendres, jokes, and quick retorts. Apart from creating a certain sense of familiarity amongst the characters, the levity of the lines eases the audience into poignant moments, such as the phone conversations between Leha (Adam’s mother) and Salleh (Adam’s uncle), where the latter urges the former to return to Singapore; to return home.

Additionally, they prevent the audience from crumbling into an emotional wreck, thereby abandoning reflections on some of the unanswerable questions implied by the play. For example, who is Salleh given that his mother rejected him when he dresses up as a woman, but having been stricken with dementia, recognises him as her daughter, Leha, and effectively forgetting her son?

Despite the complexity and the hard-hitting themes of the play, the actors took their roles with a certain lightness of touch.

Having largely seen her in abstract and devised pieces, Farah Ong as Leha is refreshing. The subtlety in her approach gives one a sense that not all is well, but one only knows what that is towards the end. This makes the show all the more poignant, and it is an excellent display of Ong’s versatility and maturity in her craft.

Salif Hardie’s earnest portrayal of Adam is a nice counterweight to the general sombre atmosphere surrounding Leha and Salleh. It is interesting to see the evolution of his innocence to realising the gravity of the situation and the weight of responsibilities that he has to bear.

While Dr Dini, the circumcision specialist, is much less flamboyant than Munah Bagharib’s YouTube persona, she attacks the role with a sparkle in her eye. Munah’s knack for comic timing is apparent and her repartee in contrast to a bemused Adam provide a much-needed interlude to the heavy play.

Mohd Fared Jainal as Salleh really hits all the emotional buttons. He threatens to reduce audience members to a sobbing mess whenever he speaks to his sister or explains to Adam about the family situation. The tenderness mixed with a tinge of wistfulness and resignation speaks of the sacrifices a caregiver makes, and of duty and love that drives him to carry on. At the same time, his campiness when in drag injects much hilarity in the first half of the play. However, the novelty does wear off a little and it almost teethers on being monotonous later on in the play.

At this juncture, it is apparent that realising the playwright’s vision is no mean feat. Not only did director Irfan Kasban realise Johnny’s vision, he deserves additional plaudits for his for having the actors break the moment and exiting or transiting each scene with a certain slowness. This artifice not only signifies time passing as a character despite the actor exiting and entering the scene within minutes of each action, it also creates a certain porousness within the static set. This allows different characters in different settings to exist within the same space.

That said, some of these moments of rapture from the generally naturalistic nature of the scenes are not well-timed. As a result, some of the most emotional moments were prematurely cut off, and the actors have to build the emotional trajectory from scratch again. Despite the minor flaw, the actors did manage to do so, which is a testament of their skill.

Potong (which means cut in Bahasa Melayu, by the way) it any way you like, this show is truly a gem of a play. It is abominable that Johnny Jon Jon has suggested in the programme notes that this might be his last full-length play. One hopes that his muses make haste and compel him to write another.

[1] McMillan, Joyce. “Jotters.” In Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams., edited by Philip Howard, 50. London, UK: Nick Hern Books, 2016.

Other Reviews

Teater Ekamatra’s Potong: When ties to the past are cutby Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

‘Potong’ by Teater Ekamatra: Of Kin and Skinby Akanksha Raja, Arts Equator

Review: Potong by Teater Ekamatraby Bak Chor Mee Boy