[Theatre Review] ‘The Karims’ Explores the Burdens and Warmth of Familial Ties

Photo: Checkpoint Theatre

Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims)
Checkpoint Theatre
Online, Sistic Live
29 September–15 October 2021

If one were asked, “What makes a family a family?” How many of us would be able to provide an insightful answer beyond displaying birth certificates and family trees?

In Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims), playwright Adib Kosnan explores the dynamics of a Singaporean Malay family through the new addition of a son-in-law, Aqil. Likened to a new player joining a football team, he wades through the entanglements and expectations of his new family, as long-held resentments surface. 

In his new team, Aqil (Adib Kosnan) has to contend with his father-in-law, Karim (Rafaat Hj Hamzah), who expects everyone to attend to familial obligations, sometimes at the expense of their desires. This leaves his sister-in-law, Rinny (Rusydina Afiqah), seething in resentment as she believes her father will never understand her.

Normah (Dalifah Shahril), his mother-in-law, may appear to be a typical housewife obsessed with K-dramas, her maternal instincts keep her own family drama from spiraling out of control. His wife, Balqis (Farah Lola), is trying to put off being independent from her family as Aqil is considering emigration. 

While the conversation is seemingly quotidian and the show feels like a dish in a slow cooker, there are several plot lines that untangle quite quickly as we move along. Through Claire Wong’s sensitive direction and Adib’s knack for storytelling, we see tensions rising to the surface only to be dispelled or deferred just before it veers into melodrama. 

With the bulk of cinematography, directed by Joel Lim, consisting of very tight close-ups, there is no space for the actors to hide except to inhabit their characters with complete sincerity. On that score, the actors really stepped up to the plate. I find myself being fully involved; ardently wishing for Karim and Rinny to meet each other halfway or giggling with the women as the daughters discuss their mother’s taste in men. 

Speaking of cinematography, this production resists any neat categorisations such as theatre for film or a short film. Despite the tight shots, it does not try to convince you that it is filmed in an actual apartment and there are a couple of scenes in a car, depicted by the well-worn conventions of actors sitting close together with some cursory miming from Karim as he seems to drive on a very straight road. 

The shot occasionally zooms out and we see an empty square which represents the grave of Diana, the child that the Karims lost. In a scene where we see Karim and Aqil performing a ritual while tending to the grave, the camera focuses on the hands and multiple shots are superimposed, forming a kind of palimpsest. Such gestural language is characteristic of Checkpoint Theatre’s productions.

Yet, this also points to unrealised possibilities—if the creative team does not want this to strictly be a short film, why not make better use of the Esplanade Theatre Studio and introduce more theatrical conventions to enhance the storytelling?

Throughout the show, we gradually learn about the motivations of different characters as well as the backstory of some events, and all of them come to a head at a family dinner. As all of this has been on a slow simmer, it is slightly discordant that they are resolved so quickly by Alqis’s comments about the importance of family. 

It is as if playwright Adib Kosnan is apologetic about taking too much of his audience’s time that he quickly deploys Alqis-Ex-Machina to take all the messy strands and tie them into a bow.

Despite that minor flaw, we are more than compensated by a stunning performance by Rafaat Hj Hamzah as he portrays Karim shrinking from an obstinate patriarch to a scared and broken man. His strident voice at the beginning of the dinner shrivels into a whimper as he reveals his fears.

Looking up from my screen as the credits roll, I cannot help but wonder which character I resemble most in my own family. Just as an ‘outsider’ casts a light on something that the Karims took for granted, this fictional family would do the same for many others who have the privilege of paying them a visit.

Further Reading

Interview with Playwright Adib Kosnan about Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims)

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: In-law tensions in finely wrought family drama The Karims by Ong Sor Fern, The Straits Times Life!

[Theatre Review] RevoLOOtion – Resolutely Seeking Alternatives

L-R: Tobi (played by Aaron Kaiser Garcia) and Gaga (played by Kewal Kartik) / Photo: Bernie Ng

RevoLOOtion
Intercultural Theatre Institute
29 April 2021
Goodman Arts Centre Black Box
29 April–1 May 2021

To most of us, we hardly give a second thought about lavatories because we expect them to be there. But the run on loo rolls in 2020 compels us to pause for thought. 

Perhaps this makes the urban Singaporean audiences amenable to RevoLOOtion, a showcase by the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI).

Conceived as a performance and a workshop, the audience is split into three groups: public service officer, bulldozer, and villager. We then witness a story about a village whose sole lavatory is slated for demolition and the reactions of some villagers.

Baba (Marvin Acero Ablao), the village elder, is resigned to it. Gaga (Kewal Kartik), the orphan, wants a peaceful protest. Tobi (Aaron Kaiser Garcia), the general worker, wants to fight. Yaku (Sandeep Yadav), the carpenter, is worried about how this confrontation will affect his livelihood and family. Long (Lin Jiarui), the farmer, is worried about his mother. Lutin (Sonu Pilania), the shopkeeper, wants to negotiate. 

The diversity and contradictory desires and plans of the characters result in a terrible outcome. The audience members, in their respective roles, are then asked to come up with an action plan to change the outcomes.

L-R: Lutin (played by Sonil Pilania) and Baba (played by Marvin Acero Ablao) / Photo: Bernie Ng

While the performance manages to elicit some sympathy for the villagers, it stops short of winning the audience over to their side. The motivations of the characters, both in the text and performance, are not fully fleshed out.

For example, it is not clear why Lutin gives up and lies to Yaku after being rebuffed by the public service officer in his attempt to negotiate over the phone. Why would he make things worse by lying, rather than saying he failed? 

Perhaps the creative team decided on some restraint so that the audience does not assume too much or how the characters would react. This might limit the possibilities of how the audience decides to intervene later. 

Even so, there must be a sense that the character truly believes that he has done all he can given the circumstances. However, this was not fully conveyed.

That said, the actors do possess a certain synergy and manage to build up the tension in each succeeding scene up to the final confrontation with the bulldozers.

Long (played by Lin Jiarui) / Photo: Bernie Ng

The workshop section was deftly facilitated by Li Xie (who also directed the show), Chng Xin Xuan, and Chng Yi Kai. We are shown possible intervention points and are required to come up with an action plan to hopefully create a better outcome. 

As the scenario plays out, there was an emphasis on taking it step-by-step rather than pushing for an ultimate conclusion. Li Xie reminded us that we were not there to change the world; a small change is still a change.

While most workshops of this nature focus on empowering the audience to have their voices heard and make a change, a refreshing element is the facilitators asking the characters how they feel about the alternative scenario. They then express that feeling through a shape or gesture. 

This provides an alternative view of the impact the audience’s plan has on others, and a start to more conversations if we had more time. 

The sceptical part of me thinks that the conditions presented were too ideal as everyone had goals in a similar direction. However, what left an impression was Li Xie encouraging the representative from the villagers group to think of more alternatives. After all, a change—however small—is better than the status quo. 

The challenge is to scale this up and apply this to our public discourse.

Further Reading

Interview with the actors of RevoLOOtion

Interview with Li Xie, director of RevoLOOtion

Other Reviews

“#unravellingimpressions of RevoLOOtion by ITI – Intercultural Theatre Institute” by Ke Weiliang, unravelling Facebook page.

“[Review] RevoLOOtion – Walk alone so it’s faster, or walk together so we can go further?” by Yaiza Canapoli, Arts Republic.

“★★★☆☆ Review: RevoLOOtion by Intercultural Theatre Institute” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Comic Book Review] Putu Piring – A Ruminative Snack

The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.

Michael Chabon, ‘The True Meaning of Nostalgia’, The New Yorker

If Chabon’s characterisation is accurate, the “consciousness of lost connections” could not be more keenly felt during the circuit breaker period (a nation-wide lockdown in all but name) at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.  

It is out of this context that Putu Piring is conceived. 

The lost connection is manifested in “the ghost of a wild boar” as a man decides to buy putu piring (steamed rice cakes) and cycles to a park―his favourite childhood haunt―to feed the wild boar. En route, he contemplates the various changes in his life. 

Like a well-prepared dish, Tay’s text is sparse yet impactful, as he manages to encapsulate the changes in the protagonist’s life with a few food items that serve as striking metaphors. 

In an interview, writer Myle Yan Tay explained that he chose putu piring for his story because it is sentimental yet current; it evokes a sense of the past, yet it is still around today. In a similar vein, the contemplations of the protagonist straddles being elegiac and coming to terms with the changes. Such a choice strikes the right chord as it leaves space for the reader to contemplate about one’s own life in tandem with the protagonist. 

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

Shuxian Lee’s illustrations may appear simple, but they have some delightful subtleties. She uses shades of brown for scenes in the past to give it a sepia complexion. This is in contrast to the monochromatic colour scheme for the present. However, the contrast is not too stark and there are portions where past and present seem to meld together. This is in harmony with the aims of the plot that straddles both past and present.

There is a striking use of small panels in various sections of the comic, which only shows an element of the whole picture such as the snout of the wild boar or the fingers of the protagonist’s grandfather. This resembles the nature of our memories as we tend to recall in vignettes. Additionally, it complements the literary elements such as placing emphasis on the culinary metaphors. 

With it being only 20 pages long, Putu Piring might be bite-sized as compared to other comics. However, it offers a flavourful bite that tempts one to crave for more. 

Further Reading

Interview with Myle Yan Tay and Shuxian Lee on Putu Piring

[Comic Book Review] Through the Longkang #1 – Paranormal Intrigues

Through the Longkang #1
Myle Yan Tay (writer) and Shuxian Lee (artist)
Checkpoint Theatre (2021) / 20 pp.

The second collaboration between Myle Yan Tay and Shuxian Lee brings us the start of a trilogy that delves into the paranormal. 

Through the Longkang brings together the well-loved elements of action-adventure, mystery, and intimations of the paranormal tales that those born in the 1990s and earlier grew up with. 

We are immediately thrown into the heart of the action as Fishball and Brick find a punctured football on a beach, and one of them (they are not clearly identified as neither of them is addressed by name) has a psychic insight upon touching the ball. 

It is revealed that a teenager went down into the longkang (canal) to retrieve a football. Upon climbing out of the longkang, he suddenly found himself exiting a well and saw an abandoned bungalow with a rather inviting swing. Horrors ensue. Our heroes hope to save the boy before it is too late. 

The well being the portal between the longkang and the abandoned bungalow reminds us of horror stories of suicides and wrongful deaths. Could this be related to the disappearance of the teenager? Is Myle Yan Tay bringing in certain local cultural tropes and recontextualising them for a new audience?

Ilustration by Shuxian Lee

As for the art, it is wonderful to see what Shuxian Lee can do with grey, white, black, red, and the occasional dash of brown. Her minimal approach truly exemplifies how less can be more. 

Her backgrounds resemble charcoal drawings, lending the story an ominous feel. Need to make the bungalow look sinister? Simply add shades of red, and highlight the entrance with white to indicate the light is on, while making it appear that the building has eyes and a mouth.

Additionally, the irregular layout of the panels adds a certain dynamism to the action, without needing to add more details to the drawing itself. This is best exemplified in choosing to have two small squares on the top left to show the teenager emerging from the well, while the rest of the two-page spread depicts the sprawling bungalow. 

That said, the first instalment will leave impatient readers unsatisfied as all it does is to set up the story of how a teenager went missing. It is unclear why this is planned as a trilogy. If the other instalments are of similar length, the trilogy could simply be a self-contained comic book. 

However, the set-up is intriguing enough for one to look forward to the rest of the series just to see what other elements will be brought in, and what effect the serialisation has on the overall story-telling.


Through the Longkang #1 is published by Checkpoint Theatre and retails at $7.90 (e-book) and $10.90 (hardcopy).

To purchase a copy, visit Checkpoint Theatre’s online shop.

[Theatre Review] Throwing One’s Hands Up

Hands Up
Split Theatre
5 March 2021
Sigma Collective Space
5–7 March 2021

An actor in school uniform points to something ahead and above eye level. Another actor with a school top and red shorts holds him back. The former questions the latter. We do not know if the first actor is directing our attention to something, trying to touch something, or just wanting to reach out. We do not know if the second actor wants to stop the other from danger or prevent him from leaving.

The above scene from Split Theatre’s Hands Up—directed by Darryl Lim and Fadhil Daud— struck me because it encapsulates the whole show. This gutsy group of actors (Amanda Kim, Clement Yeo, Ella Wee, Mabel Yeo, Hoe Wei Qi, Xin Rui) may have something to say, but we do not know what exactly that is.

The show is purportedly divided into five sections: silence, self, pride, realisation, and death.

Take ‘Self’ for example. It consists of ten minutes of movement motifs that are repeated by the actors. They, perhaps, gesture towards struggle, conflict, connection, birth. Yet, there is no palpable sense of progression or stasis in the composition. The actors seem like microscopic organisms moving about in the rectangular petri dish of a dance studio.

Worse still, I am assuming the movement sequence just described belongs to ‘self’ rather than other sections simply because one is never sure. And wherever the other sections might be, they all proceed in the same vein of generic gesturing.

We have scraps of text that range from the prologue of Agamemnon to the very mundane question in Hokkien: ‘Have you eaten?’ We do not know if the characters mean what they say or if the piece is perhaps inclined towards absurdism and the emptiness of words.

We have bits of song that are perhaps veneers of the characters; occasional dance breaks that perhaps aid with transitioning to another section; and one could go on ad nauseum.

All of that is such a waste as the show actually started with some potential.

In ‘Silence’ (this I am sure because it is the first thing we see), the actors introduce themselves by writing their names on their individual whiteboards. Next, they inform us that it is difficult to interact because of COVID-19. They then attempt to strike a conversation by writing a question on their whiteboards and would shush anyone up if someone verbally answers them. The fact that fellow audience members could not help themselves but to answer, even after the first couple of instances, speaks of the innate, human need to connect and communicate.

But as with the carousel of vignettes that ensue, it is not developed any further.

With a show that offers perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, we are less inclined to put one’s hand up and more inclined to throw both up.

[Book Review] Void by Frank Passani

Void 

Frank Passani

Notion Press (2020) / 219 pp.

To purchase the book, click here.

Passani’s cerebral novel revolves around Melpomene Lau, a Spanish literature professor teaching at the Singapore University of Literary Studies in 2032.

Through a series of vignettes presented in various literary forms (diary entries, dialogues, flash-back, flash-forward, reversals, speculative imaginings of utopia and dystopia), we see Lau dealing with the void that she feels, triggered by a suicide of a friend and the general ennui induced by the demands of modern life.

As hinted by the Lau addressing her diary as Transcendental Ego, we get more of an intellectual rather than an emotional exploration of this void. Initially, it might be difficult for most readers to have a handle on this as it is full of academic terms and references. However, Passani does leave some clues as to what he is doing towards the latter half of the novel.

Those who have any training in philology or literary studies will have a field day as Passani is unafraid to reveal the breadth and depth of his academic background through his protagonist. This book could easily double up as a reading list for anyone who wants to delve deeper into literary studies or world literature.

Lau would eventually go on to write a novel, Void. These and other self-reflexive elements in the novel seem to express Passani’s views on academia, literature, and even aspects of Singaporean society. However, rather than exploiting his protagonist to be a mere mouthpiece of his views, care is taken to weave that into the story.

A couple of areas in which I wished Passani would delve a little more into are Lau’s identity and the setting of Singapore in the near future.

In the novel, it is established that Lau’s father hails from Hong Kong, while her mother hails from Madrid. Her parents decided to settle in Brighton, which lends her sort of a triple identity. Add to the fact that her name is due to her mother specialising in Ancient Greek philology, and we get an interesting melange. With Singapore priding itself on being a multicultural society, it would be fascinating to see how someone with such a complex identity exist within that society.

Placing the novel in Singapore 12 years ahead from the present day allows Passani some leeway to invent certain elements, such as the university Lau is teaching at. That said, apart from mentioning COVID-27, I would love to see how he imagines other areas of Singapore—as a foreigner who has lived in Singapore for a decade—based on current trajectories.

On the whole, this novel requires a patient reader as one has to scale the mountain of academic references. However, Passani makes the journey a little less arduous with an engaging narrative and a thinly veiled explanation later on. If anything, it has sparked an interest in me to explore world literature to find out what inspired him to structure the novel that he did.

[Theatre Review] Two Songs and a Story – Taking Stock of Locks and Barriers

Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Two Songs and a Story
Checkpoint Theatre
Online, Sistic Live
6–31 August 2020

Apart from being a health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be a life audit. We are forced to reëvaluate all aspects of our lives and confront uncomfortable truths that we would rather conveniently forget.

For Checkpoint Theatre, they cancelled their first production of the 2020 season and turned The Heart Comes to Mind and A Grand Design into audio presentations. Two Songs and a Story marks the company’s first major production conceived to be presented online in adherence to the government’s guidelines.

As the title suggests, we get five writer-performers taking stock of certain aspects of their lives with a monologue largely bookended with two songs.

While the format may sound like an open mic gig on film, directors Huzir Sulaiman and Joel Lim worked closely with the performers and the cinematography to ensure diverse and surprising modes of presentations.

ants chua performing “at least i have words now” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

In “at least i have words now”, ants chua explores the dynamics of friendships vis-à-vis romantic relationships and how the former is much more ambiguous with lack of rituals and clear markers of beginnings and endings.

It is a wise choice to anchor the monologue with a childhood story about making friends on the school bus as a reflection—and almost an allegory—of the friendships made and lost later in life. The situation is simple enough to understand, but there is a sense that one carries a certain naïveté into later life, which results in hurting others. This is in stark contrast to chua’s insightful analysis of the difference between romance and friendships—a realisation for which chua has the words to articulate now.

chua’s restrained performance allows the text to breathe and sink in as we inevitably reflect on our own friendships.

Inch Chua performing “Super Q” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

It is easy to think of Inch Chua as a singer, but if her consistent forays into theatre over the past few years is not enough to rid you of the idea that she is merely “dipping her toes” in the theatre industry, then “Super Q” should do the trick.

Chua plunges into the heart of the COVID-19 crisis by relaying her experiences as a volunteer in sanitising operations. The disjuncture between the comforts of her home and the seemingly draconian measures at the workers’ dormitories is disconcerting to say the least.

Chua’s experimentation with rhythm and poetry in her text enhances the emotions of frustration and confusion it evokes. This is complemented by the cuts and lighting design in the way the video was edited.

If the first piece is contemplative, Chua is on the other end as she bores into your heart with original songs written for the show. She cries: “All this must mean something more / when you have the privilege to be bored.”

Jo Tan performing “A Bit” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Ever since the success of Forked (2019), Jo Tan has been prolific in writing and performing monologues that feature quirky characters, but their experiences or desires reveal something insightful about the circumstances that we live in.

In “A Bit”, Tan plays Bit Wah. An unassuming office lady who gets through life merely doing what is expected of her. While her lack of ambition makes her existence seems mechanical, she finds solace in her favourite anime.

Tan’s comic timing makes this short piece a joy to watch, and the ending is oddly entertaining.

To a culture that glorifies productivity, watching anime may seem frivolous. But if all that hustling is akin to the conformity of the grey skyscrapers of Tokyo, perhaps Bit Wah has a point in wanting life to be a little bit more colourful.

Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai performing “And Then I Am Light” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai’s “And Then I Am Light” is a refreshing change as the diagonal angle of the shot and the breezy delivery of her monologue feels like a casual interview as compared to the performative nature of the other pieces.

On the whole, it is heartfelt and life-affirming as she comes to terms with being able to accept herself and move on from her trauma of her childhood and past relationships.

However, with the breezy delivery and tight pacing of the editing, one does not feel the full gravity of her words. This results in the piece losing some of its bite as it sometimes feels like a behind-the-scenes interview for a sleek music video.

This is a pity as the potential of the monochromatic shot of her monologue transiting into full-blown colour when she sings in a beautiful blue costume with embroidery is lost. However, the option of turning on the captions and reading the text does compensate a little.

That said, this does not completely detract from the heart of the piece and Rebekah’s luscious vocals is always a treat.

weish performing “Be Here, With Me” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Fresh from her collaboration with Checkpoint Theatre on Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner (2019), weish takes centre stage in “Be Here, With Me”. An evocative performance about her struggles with trying to get over a traumatic experience.

In her music practice, weish uses live loops of singing, vocal percussion, and instrumentation. While we see that here, it not merely a transposition of her forte into this piece. Instead, the live loops that are present in her songs and monologue become a soundscape of her mind.

This allows us to see how she tries to appear normal so not as to burden others, while desperately wanting affirmations from others, even though she knows that it does not assuage her insecurities, self-doubt, and blame.

Having the camera suddenly charge up to her face-on after her opening song is uncomfortably confrontational, but it creates a sense that she is speaking directly to us as a particular person rather than an audience in general.

This is an inspired move as we then get to see her slowly crumble as she tries to explain herself and her experience—a rather different side of her as compared to the one who is in absolute control of the sonic textures, rhythms, and tempo when she is singing.

Despite its seemingly simple premise, Two Songs and a Story proves that Checkpoint Theatre is equally adept at bringing their brand of producing local works for the digital medium.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: Checkpoint Theatre’s Two Songs And A Story presents intimate, heartbreaking monologues” by Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life!  
♦ Article is behind a paywall. 

Resources

Two Songs and a Story: Artist Dialogue

[Review] A Grand Design – Natural Inspirations

A Grand Design (An Audio Experience)
Checkpoint Theatre
Spotify and Soundcloud
1-12 July 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic compels everyone to recalibrate their plans, rather than putting their season on hold, Checkpoint Theatre opts to tease their audience by reconceiving some of their shows as audio experiences.

A Grand Design was supposed to be a lecture-performance held at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum as Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips educates and regales some of her experiences as an environmentalist and educator.

In this audio experience, sound designer Shah Tahir compensates for the lack of physical exhibits that we would have experienced in the museum by immersing us in his soundscapes. He plunges us into the depths of the ocean or plonks us amidst excited children as we look at orangutans with our minds’ eye. This is a nice contrast to the concrete jungle that one faces due to the current situation.

Phillips’s musings about the odd encounters when educating people about nature, or what drew her to environmental studies are entertaining and educational. She manages to go into some technical detail without turning someone like me, with very little science background, off.

But what makes this experience valuable are the surprisingly profound insights that one gains from her observations. In the last segment, what starts off as an explanation of a well-known event unexpectedly evolved into a meditation of life, survival, existence, and death.

Coïncidentally, it started to rain outside towards the last few minutes of my audio experience. Clearly, nature had to get in on the action and add its finishing touches to a well-designed experience.


There will be a live staging of A Grand Design in the near future. Please check Checkpoint Theatre’s website and their social media for updates.

[Book Review] Panama and Beyond by Debby Detering

Panama and Beyond: Letters from Cuba, Panama, and by steamship to and from Panama 1907–1914
Debby Detering
Self-published (2019)/ 259 pp.
To purchase the book, click here.

Letters and journal entries are useful sources which reveal the everyday lived experience of people who lived in the past. But a detailed chronicle of the construction of the Panama Canal and the going-ons of a ship does feel repetitive to the lay reader after a while.

In Panama and Beyond, Detering circumvents this by guiding the reader through assiduous research. Drawing from a variety of sources, she furnishes us with pictures and quotes to bring the minutiae in letters and journals to life.

Through a passage of eight years (1907-1914), we embark on a vicarious voyage through the letters and journals of Detering’s relatives. From a family gathering in Cuba; to the author’s grandfather, William Hobby, working on the Culebra Cut, the central section of the Panama Canal; and the return trip from Panama to San Francisco through Hobby’s journals.

Nothing seems to escape the letter-writers as they detail anything that catches their fancy; working conditions, foods, styles of dress etc. Paired with Detering’s research, we learn of interesting factoids such as Dr Gorgas’ hypothesis of fever being transmitted by mosquitoes and his work in preventing transmissions in Panama; Satsuma buttons; and a newsletter which details the amount of excavation done in the canal, thereby sparking a healthy competition amongst the workers.

Such details not only entertain the general reader with a healthy curiosity, but they also provide excellent starting points for research into a history of engineering, trade, labour, transportation, travel, and many more.

Additionally, the pairing of source material and research does not feel like a bombardment, but more of a knowledgeable aunt guiding you through the unveiling of her family album. This makes it easy to dip in and out of the book.

More importantly, despite a clear effort in the curation to produce a coherent timeline, Detering does not attempt to sanitise history despite it concerning her relatives. The sheer racist disdain of the other workers by Charles Potter may be hard to read, but it something we all have to come to terms with.

Ultimately, Panama and Beyond is an insightful read about an important slice of American history and expansion, while providing us with details about the sights and sounds of other countries in South America in the early 1900s.


This review is made possible by Reedsy Discovery. 

[Dance Review] Back of the Bus – Busloads of Fun

Back of the Bus
Java Dance Theatre (with local artists)
15 March 2020
Various places in Bukit Panjang
14‒22 March 2020
Part of Arts in your Neighbourhood 2020

In the dreariness of our lives, some of us might wish that life could be a musical or a dance piece, even for a brief moment. New Zealand-based Java Dance Theatre grants such a wish to their audience, as we wonder how much dancing one can do on an ordinary moving bus.

The repertoire on this journey consists of character dances in relation to bus rides, contemporary work that takes place outdoors, and endearing moments of human-to-human connection which is part of the company’s ethos.

In this whimsical ride, we get a trio of dancers. Choreographer and performer Sacha Copland brings in the laughs with her rambunctious energy; her effort to pretend to struggle on the bus while ensuring she could actually balance is no mean feat. She also throws in a couple of surprises that are simple, but creative.

With her striped top and breezy movements to French music, Lauren Carr evokes the bliss of the French Riviera. While her movements are fluid and free-flowing, they are anchored by a certain precision in her extensions.

As a counterpoint, local dancer Adele Goh’s staccato movements relays the tension we feel on public transport in peak hour. In another piece, we see her display her contemporary dance pedigree in a heartfelt duo with Carr that seems to hint at longing and connection.

The pieces which sees the trio dancing together not only entertain but impress as the dancers perform athletic feats on the bus.

All this is complemented by local accordionist, Syafiqah ‘Adha and a cheerful host, Sabrina Sng.

The tour brings audience to various parts of Bukit Panjang which they might not know about. While the pit stops are relatively familiar to me, it allows one to look at the place in a fresh perspective.

While much more can be said about the planned bits of the show, the unplanned elements of the show do add to the experience.

The occasional honk of a car or scampering of a passer-by alerts one to the contrast between the performance and the quotidian. But it also emphasises what more can be experienced if one is simply open to the rhythms and atmosphere of wherever one is.

Throughout the trip, I have lost count of the number of drivers who stopped beside our bus, but their eyes were dead set ahead; completely oblivious to the seeming mayhem and wonderment that is happening right beside them. If only they looked up.

So it turns out that one could do a whole lot of dancing on a moving bus. And, to borrow a comment uttered by a French audience member, “c’est magnifique!”