Photo: Joseph Nair / Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre
Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes
24 March 2023
Drama Centre Black Box
23 March–2 April 2023
A musician, an activist, an academic, and a therapist walk into a politician’s house on the eve of an election. The showdown that ensues is unexpected as the characters, save for the politician, thought this was just a group of friends catching up for old time’s sake.
There may be a sense of camaraderie in the shorthand that one develops with friends, but without examining the intention and context that underlie them, the in-jokes, nicknames, and quips soon become barbs.
As Tesh, an aspiring member of parliament, enlists the help of his friends due to a looming political scandal, friendships are pushed to the limits, and intentions are questioned, as old or unresolved conflicts emerge. Barbs and hands fly quick and fast.
It is in this messy slugfest that playwright Myle Yan Tay interrogates race, politics, class, and censorship. Issues such as minority representation in media and politics; what constitutes the brown community; and whether cancel culture is going too far—among other topics—are unleashed on us in unrelenting waves.
The topics covered might make the production seem like an argumentative essay in costume, but it is far from that. The topics are raised organically, depending on what the characters clashed about, and we are not brow-beaten into any position.
But where we really see the playwright’s skill is that as we lean towards all the characters being complex and irreducible to a set of identity markers, we are yanked back to the reality that there are some issues affecting all of them simply on the basis of their skin colour. One is unsure of one’s stand, but as a Chinese man, I find myself keenly absorbing every nuance and complexion presented.
Not turning a provocative play into something overly didactic or having a woe-is-me protagonist, while offering several insights to mull on is difficult for any playwright, let alone for one debuting his first full-length play.
L-R: Dev (Krish Natarajan), Adam (Shahid Nasheer), Tesh (Gosteloa Spancer), Scott (Ebi Shankara), Fizzy (Adib Kosnan)
Photo: Joseph Nair / Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre
As most of the stage time mirrors real time, and all the action occurs in Tesh’s living room, it is easy for the show to be derailed into an endless shouting match. The sophistication in Huzir Sulaiman’s direction coupled with the sheer commitment from the wonderful cast mean that every moment is filled with pregnant intensity.
Our attention is drawn to different parts of the room when the fissures occur. But if one were to cast an eye on the other characters observing the situation, you can feel the simmering tension, as you wonder what would happen next.
Gosteloa Spancer’s portrayal of Tesh may be slightly tentative initially. But by the time he delivers the key monologue, he has the audience latching on to every word.
Ebi Shankara’s Scott, a therapist who moved to the US, may be the most easy-going of the lot, as he bears the brunt of jokes about him escaping Singapore or adopting Americanisms. However, domestic troubles gradually bubble to the surface. Witnessing how Shankara allows his character to stew in his problems until the inevitable revelation is a delight.
Krish Natarajan plays Dev, a musician who provided most of the comic relief due to his cheeky demeanour. But one should look out for the handling of Dev’s character arc as he becomes more circumspect when Tesh’s predicament compels him to reflect on his past.
Watching Adib Kosnan play Fizzy—an ardent activist seeking to effect change via social media—is a refreshing change to his mild-mannered character in a previous collaboration with Checkpoint Theatre, Keluarga Besar En. Karim. This is also a testament to his versatility as an actor.
Adam, a jaded academic caught in an unjustified social media maelstrom caused by Fizzy, is understandably sceptical and guarded. Shahid Nasheer’s keen sense of timing allows Adam to play devil’s advocate as he curtly interrogates everyone’s intentions.
The other cast members—Isabella Chiam (Marina, Tesh’s wife); Lareina Tham (Caroline, Tesh’s assistant); Vishnucharan Naidu (Ravi, Tesh’s intern); Hang Qian Chou and Chaney Chia (cameramen)—serve to emphasise how politics is heavily reliant on optics.
The Singapore theatre canon is no stranger to tackling race issues. Only time will tell if Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes will be added to it.
However, with so much to think about, the joke’s on all of us if we don’t move the conversation forward on race issues, and figure out ways to coëxist better.
“Theatre review: Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes offers detailed characterisation and serious themes” by Ong Sor Fern, The Straits Times Life (Review is behind a paywall. Read a partial transcript here)
“Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes“ by Naeem Kapadia, Crystalwords
“Review: Dia Hakim on Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes by Myle Yan Tay (Checkpoint Theatre)” by Dia Hakim, Critics Circle Blog
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