[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!

[Interview] Playwright Adib Kosnan talks about his new play, The Karims

The second half of Checkpoint Theatre’s Take It Personally season opens with a new digital production, Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims).

Written by Adib Kosnan, the play looks at how a new son-in-law shifts the family dynamics, which reopens new wounds and surface new tensions.

I contacted Adib, who is also performing in the production, to find out more about the play.

What inspired you to write this play?

The inspiration for this play began with my own personal experience of coming into another family as an in-law. While talking to friends who went through the same situation, I found many similarities in terms of our experiences.

What struck me most was how certain attitudes, especially about gender roles, differed in varying degrees amongst families, but always hovered around the same archetypes—who was in charge of certain chores, or who got served first at the dining table. I found these family dynamics fascinating. That was the starting point for me, this constant re-negotiation of spaces and boundaries even as you create your own new culture as a married couple.

I’ve also found that as a Malay Singaporean,  there are certain cultural idiosyncrasies that are prevalent, and sometimes there are religious or cultural ideas that clash with your own set of personal beliefs—navigating these undercurrents was something else I wanted to explore through this story.

This production was initially meant to be staged live, however, it has since changed into a digital production. Has this impacted the way you write in any way?

The decision to stage it as a digital production initially brought mixed feelings for me. There was a sense of excitement and relief that the story could finally be told, but at the same time, I was very aware that certain theatrical moments and nuances I had envisioned would now need to be re-imagined. How do we maintain that feeling of intimate connection with the audience when they are now experiencing the story through a screen rather than sharing immediate space with the cast?

It was very interesting to refine the script while now considering the camera as the literal lens through which the story is experienced. For instance, certain moments could be amplified through a close-up of a facial expression rather than an actor embodying the emotion for the audience to understand. As we worked, I really began to appreciate all the possibilities and nuances that could be captured and portrayed through this new medium of presentation, while still keeping that original essence of the family that I wanted to express. I’m very excited for everyone to experience the final product in September.

As you are also acting in the production, have there been interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process that made you look at the story or the characters anew?

Being part of the performance process as an actor and working with our director, Claire Wong,  is something that I will cherish for a long, long time. Claire’s process of unearthing the depths of each character,  coupled with the other cast members’ layered and thoughtful portrayal of their characters, really helped me understand my own writing in a deeper way.

I discovered—or rather, rediscovered—the different sparks of inspiration that led me to craft these characters, which became a very emotional process for me because the stories came from real places of connection. There were times I even questioned myself whether it would have been better to maintain some distance from the work as its playwright, instead of immersing myself in it as an actor as well, because I was so affected by the words that were spoken. However, that would have meant missing out on an opportunity and process that really pushed me to grow as an artist.

Claire’s careful crafting of the rehearsal process allowed all the actors the space to explore and connect with each other as a family, as well as develop each character’s distinct voice. My character, Aqil, was originally written very much in my personal voice; the Aqil that you see in the play is quite different, but still retains the motivations and empathy that I initially envisioned for him. The challenge of exploring this expanded version of Aqil as an actor felt like a parallel to the play itself: the idea of entering a new group or family and having to adjust and adapt to foster a new dynamic.

Seeing how the other cast members resonated with their own characters, or hearing about the versions of each character that existed in their own families, not only helped to add depth to each character but also gave me a sense of personal validation—that these voices and stories that I was trying to represent by writing this play truly existed and should be told. This entire production has definitely left an indelible mark in my heart.

What is the one thing you love and hate about being in a family?

I think the one thing I both love and hate about being in a family is how connected we become. This connection can be nurturing and fulfilling, but also needs untangling as individuals go through different situations and evolve. Sometimes we continue to communicate with the versions of our family members that still exist in our heads, forgetting that they too may have changed, and that’s when conflict arises. Communication becomes miscommunication. It is easy to be understanding, but difficult to truly understand. But family is family—the love is there to help us get through these rough areas. At least I’d like to think it does, for the most part.


Catch It!

Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims) will be shown online from 29 September to 15 October 2021.

The performance is in Malay and English (with English subtitles).

[Interview] Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips on Being Vulnerable

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

The next major highlight of Checkpoint Theatre’s 2021 season, “Take It Personally”, is an eight-part podcast titled Vulnerable. Written and performed by Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips, it chronicles her experience of the pandemic as a creative freelancer living with congenital heart disease.

I contacted Phillips to find out more about her inspirations and her process.

Your last project with Checkpoint Theatre was A Grand Design, a one-woman monologue presented in an audio format. Was there anything interesting you learnt from that which you are bringing to this podcast series?

A Grand Design was initially going to be staged at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum as a performance-lecture, presented as part of the NUS Arts Festival 2020. The move to an audio experience was initially a practical decision when COVID-19 restrictions were implemented, born out of the desire for the work to meet an audience.

I was extremely thrilled when I listened to the audio experience. There is an intimacy that comes with listening with your headphones on, and Shah Tahir’s sound design brings a whole different quality to the experience. I had hoped for the staged version of A Grand Design to be immersive and experiential, and the audio experience version achieved those objectives for me. I’m extremely proud of it. It made me more open to the idea that you do not need bodies in a physical space to share an intimate story, which is also very much the case with Vulnerable.

Why did you decide to create another audio presentation as opposed to a filmed performance?

I needed the audience to focus on the words. Vulnerable comes from a raw personal experience, and every word has its own place. It’s very intentional. With a filmed recording, where audiences may focus more on physical performance, cinematography, etc., the qualities that are so essential to the work would have been diluted.

In a sense, the story required an aural format to bring out its delicacy, and I crafted the words around that. Vulnerable acts like a secret; it should be told directly into the audience’s ears through their headphones.

The experience of the pandemic can be trying. What compelled you to take your deeply personal and difficult experiences and turn it into a podcast series?

Writing Vulnerable has been a process of discovery. I’m learning to be vulnerable, in all the meanings of the word. Deep down, I have to admit that I am still uncomfortable releasing this work — no one wants to divulge personal information like medical history, or loss of freelance gigs and income! But those are the realities that came up when I finally reclaimed that permission to write for myself. If it wasn’t for the support from the team at Checkpoint Theatre, I don’t think Vulnerable would have made it to production.

Did you discover any new insights into what you went through as you articulated your experiences and shaped the narrative of the series?

It’s not really an insight but a challenge: In all our efforts to be nimble in adjusting the work and releasing it as quickly as possible, the situation is constantly evolving on global, national, and personal levels.

The very week we started recording, new clusters were found at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Immigration and Checkpoints Authority. While in the studio, Huzir Sulaiman, the director and dramaturge, asked me to write a new piece, on the spot, to add to the narrative. This is a line from that piece:

I knew that writing about an ongoing pandemic would mean that something could happen and my story would change and there would be no closure. Because there is truth in the phrase, ‘Nobody is safe until everyone is safe.’

I’ve had to accept that chronicling my experience comes with that level of specificity in capturing time. There’s still material that I go back and forth on, wondering whether it should have made the final cut. But it is this one line that encapsulates why every stage of the journey matters to all of us.

Do you have any advice for those who are feeling uncertain or vulnerable during this difficult time?

I don’t know if I can give advice. I’ve been in that position and I wonder whether advice is the right thing to give. At most, I would encourage you to find the people you can fall into, and land softly. And if this pandemic has weighed you down in any way, I hope you listen to Vulnerable and know that you are not alone.


Catch it!

Vulnerable premiers on Thursday, 17 June 2021. It will be available on YouTube, Soundcloud, and Spotify with two new episodes released every two days. Click on the icons below to access the podcast from your preferred platform.


Related Event

How do we make art to capture history as it unfolds? Will new developments render our stories irrelevant? How do we build resilience for ourselves, and tell these stories with empathy?

On Fri 25 June at 8pm, Cheyenne Alexandria Philips, the writer-performer of Vulnerable, and director-dramaturg Huzir Sulaiman will be in conversation with Daniel Tham, senior curator behind the National Museum of Singapore’s Picturing The Pandemic: A Visual Record Of Covid-19 in Singapore.

Join us for this exciting discussion, moderated by Wong Kar Mun Nicole, about exposing our personal triumphs and struggles, reckoning with upheaval through art, and why we need to memorialise a pandemic that we would all rather forget.

[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.

Checkpoint Theatre Publishes First Comic Book – Putu Piring

When a theatre company announces its upcoming season, one gets excited about the shows on offer and the issues that will be tackled. Checkpoint Theatre’s 2021 season, Take It Personally, remains true to its vision of championing original stories, but there is a twist.

In a first for the company, Checkpoint Theatre will be publishing a comic book, Putu Piring. I contacted the Myle Yan Tay (author) and Shuxian Lee (illustrator) to find out more about the project.

What is Putu Piring about?

Yan: Putu Piring is about a man returning to his childhood haunt with the titular snack in hand. He reflects on his journey of growing up: from being a kid cycling on the parkway home from school, to a working adult, now cycling to escape the monotony of his daily life.

Putu piring itself is an oddly evocative snack. It’s a food that is both sentimental but also current, with new renditions appearing all the time. It’s that sense of being rooted in the past and present that I wanted to capture in this story; that sometimes, in our present moment, we become so cynical that we wish we could be nostalgic. It’s almost a nostalgia for nostalgia.

A theatre company publishing a comic book? How did the project come about?

Yan: During Circuit Breaker, when it was unclear when theatres would open again, Huzir Sulaiman, Joint Artistic Director of Checkpoint Theatre, asked me to write a comic. It had been a long-running conversation between the two of us and this was the perfect opportunity to make it happen. Faith Ng, Checkpoint’s Associate Artistic Director, put me in touch with Shuxian, and we then worked to write, develop, and publish it. 

Could you explain the creative process in creating this comic book? Did the text come first before the illustration or was it done simultaneously?

Yan: I wrote the first script, passed it to Shuxian to illustrate, and then we’d go back and forth on subsequent drafts together. I had a very clear vision of the ending of the comic; I knew what the reader would be seeing, and what sort of emotions I wanted them to feel. The comic book’s story was weirdly reverse-engineered in that way, with me figuring out what readers would need to read and see in order to get to that ending.

As we worked, Shuxian crafted some new pages that didn’t quite fit into the first draft of the script, but they were too perfect to cut. So together we rewrote and redrafted to figure out how to make those gorgeous pages work. It was a very collaborative process and it was really fantastic to see these pages I had written come to life with such colour and vibrancy.

Shuxian: When I read Yan’s script, I could already see most of the visuals in my head. Either he wrote incredibly vividly, or I was fortunate enough to share his vision, so there weren’t huge differences between what he wanted the comic to look like and what I actually drew. Since I’m based in Belgium, Yan had to provide me with most of the reference pictures for the locations featured in the comic; with those and his script as a starting point, I could build on the scenes and perspectives. I had some guidelines to follow, but was mostly free to do anything I liked with it. I would sketch out thumbnails or uncoloured panels and Yan would send his feedback before we finalised a page.

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

How did you approach illustrating this comic? How would you describe your aesthetic?

Shuxian: I decided I wanted to draw something minimal and almost sterile—Adrian Tomine-inspired illustrations, to reflect the overall sense of ennui. I used disparate colour palettes to differentiate the time frames and contrasting moods of the past and present.

My aesthetic influences vary, but I try to keep a hand-drawn, organic feel throughout my drawings, even when they are drawn digitally.

What were some of the challenges in creating this comic? Were there any interesting discoveries in the process?

Yan: A clear challenge was Shuxian’s remoteness from Singapore. The comic book takes place in Singapore and follows a cycling route near East Coast Park. We worked around it by having me send photos over for reference. Shuxian then recreated them on the page with her own flair. These ended up lifting the comic into a unique visual space: something very real and unreal at the same time.

Shuxian: The time difference as well, perhaps—it would have been more difficult if there was a tight deadline! I also found it challenging to balance a very physically and mentally exhausting day job with illustrating on the side; I’m hoping that illustration and art-making will take up the bulk of my time in the near future. Thankfully, for this comic, I had the weekends to work on it.

I’ve rediscovered my love for the graphic novel medium! And that I actually do love illustrating someone else’s story. This is the first time I’m collaborating on one and it’s been amazingly rewarding seeing what we come up with after bouncing ideas off of each other. I really appreciate being lucky enough to find a collaborator who shares my love for this storytelling medium. Getting to immerse myself in someone else’s inner world has been very enriching.

Yan: In the past, I’ve mainly written and then directed my own work; so it was surprisingly fulfilling to be able to hand off the reins to someone else and watch as they worked. I especially enjoyed seeing Shuxian come up with pages that I could never have thought of myself, because she has such a great imagination.

We had such a good time with this project that we’re actually already working on a new comic, Through the Longkang, which will be launched together with Putu Piring at our comic book launch event Picture This on 23 March!


Putu Piring will be launched, along with several other titles, at Picture This on 23 March 2020 at Goodman Arts Centre, Black Box.

[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.

[Theatre Review] Thick Beats for Good Girls — More Than Fist-Pumping and Finger-Flicking

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

[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.