Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre
Checkpoint Theatre kicks off its 2023 season with the premier of Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes, a play by its associate artist, Myle Yan Tay.
With the play being promised as a “nuanced and unflinching examination of friendship, race, and masculinity in our country”, I caught up with the playwright to find out more about his inspirations behind the play.
The eve of an election. A politician, a musician, an activist, an academic, and a therapist reunite after several years.
As the five friends catch up on the different paths their lives have taken, they realise their rose-tinted memories might be the only thing holding them together.
With secrets unravelling, old conflicts reawakening, and a threat looming, the five are forced to confront the boys they once were, and the men they want to become.
What was the inspiration behind Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes? Was there a particular incident that compelled you to explore male friendships?
The emotional inspiration was hanging out with my friends and thinking about what our conversations will be like in 15–20 years. Will we still laugh at the same things? Will we still be as close? What secrets will we have? That was the first step, but the characters are very far from my friends. They were the initial spark for me to start thinking about friendship and male intimacy.
The more artistic inspirations were two plays: The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley and One Night in Miami by Kemp Powers. Both plays look at masculinity in such a specific way, concerned with larger societal issues, but located within this group of very human characters. And both works take place over a single evening, as these lifelong friendships become forever altered. That constraint was very appealing to me, to see how a situation like that can devolve.
What is the significance of the title?
I’ve been telling jokes my whole life. Some of them are funnier than others. Some have been hurtful. Jokes are often seen as funny and lighthearted but can also be used to deflect, distract, empower, and attack someone.
In a group of friends (who happen to be brown), what are the jokes that harm individuals and/or friendships? What are they laughing at? Who are they laughing with? That’s what the title is about, it’s about the confluence of race, masculinity, and comedy in Singapore. The jokes that are told can reveal a lot about the relationship between oneself and the relationships one has with others
What was the biggest challenge you faced while writing the play?
One of the biggest difficulties was trying to figure out when I was crossing the line. I knew I wanted the play to step into some taboo territory, but it was also trying to navigate when it should happen, when I should step back, and very often, when I had to go a few steps further.
Did you gain any new insights into your own friendships in the process of writing the play?
It’s definitely had me thinking about the concept of “growth”. That’s a major theme of the play, something I was intentionally exploring when writing Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes.
But seeing the actors bring it to life and make those friendships tangible puts it even more in focus—because these are five men who have grown together and grown apart. Now that they’re together again, they’re regressing to those older versions of themselves.
So the thing I’ve been thinking about is how can friendship allow transformation? And how does it encourage stagnation?
What is one advice you would give a young man transiting into adulthood?
Gosh, I hardly feel qualified to do that. I guess it would be to think about your position. What biases are you carrying because of how you exist in the world? What are you allowed to get away with because you’re a man? And how can you help people from your position?