2017 is a year of great fear and trepidation. Surrounded by an uncertain political climate tending towards conservatism, it’s easy to make the claim that nothing is sacred anymore, and immediately attack institutions undergoing great change. In conservative Singapore, homosexuality still doesn’t sit well with a good number of citizens, with controversy arising from even family friendly films such as Beauty and the Beast, resulting in families being torn apart by such rampant homophobia. Playwright Joel Tan has taken to writing a script that attempts to change that view, and inspired by true events experienced by Ed and Mark Koh-Waite, a gay couple with two adopted sons, Pangdemonium premieres their first ever original play with Joel Tan’s TANGO.
TANGO stars Koh Boon Pin as Kenneth and Emil Marwa as Liam, making up two halves of the couple. After living in the United Kingdom for a good number of years, the couple returns to Singapore to care for Kenneth’s ailing father Richard (Lim Kay Siu), who recently suffered a stroke. Joining the couple are their son Jayden (child actor Dylan Jenkins, in his stage debut), and their close friend Elaine (Karen Tan). While dining at a Chinese restaurant, the couple was refused service by Poh Lin, an elderly waitress (Lok Meng Chue), who is taken aback by their non-traditional family. In a parallel storyline, Poh Lin’s nephew Benmin (Benjamin Chow) befriends Zul (Ruzaini Mazani), a man he meets through a gay application.
TANGO quickly set its dramatic gears in motion once it staged the pivotal restaurant scene. Benjamin Chow was able to bring across the sense that Benmin was a Malaysian through his language and small tics, proving that he remains one of the most talented rising stars in the local theatre scene. As an older woman, Poh Lin only knows Chinese and a limited amount of English, and as a person whose only conception of family is the traditional husband-wife model, leads to miscommunication and misunderstanding with Kenneth and Liam when her world clashes with theirs. Lok Meng Chue embraces this role completely, expressing her confusion with the set-up and blabbering in a mix of broken English and Chinese about how ‘perverted’ and ‘unnatural’ the family is, naturally offending them. Unfortunately for all of them, someone had uploaded a video of the entire incident, going viral and leaving the family to decide how to handle the aftermath of the incident.
Meanwhile, when Benmin meets Zul, they discuss the use of gay dating apps, with Zul introducing Ben to the confusing, multifaceted world of gay dating, where fun is never as innocuous as it sounds. A realistic portrayal of life as a gay man in Singapore, Joel Tan’s script even covers racism within the LGBT community, which Zul brings up in his experience as a Malay man often rejected by Chinese men on account of his race. Tan’s script is even peppered with recent news, such as aptly including a line about Zul and Benmin wanting to go to a certain ‘purple event’, but only permanent residents and citizens are allowed. Both Benjamin Chow and Ruzaini Mazani have amazing chemistry onstage together, and the conversations the two had flowed easily and with genuine emotion. Ruzani Mazani was outstanding and perfectly cast to play Zul, capturing subtle nuances to make the character more believable, and we can only hope to see him in many more productions in future.
Koh Boon Pin and Emil Marwa shared a strong bond onstage and showcased a loving and trustworthy relationship relationship even Ed and Mark would be proud of. Both actors made us feel for their characters, convincingly bringing out the roller coaster of emotions they went through, encapsulating every frustration and every heartbreak and everyday heroes we were cheering on every step of the way. Koh Boon Pin also had good chemistry with Lim Kay Siu, and their father-son talks felt real, particularly when Kenneth reminisces with Richard about the past, and Richard’s former violent reaction to Kenneth’s homosexuality. This outpouring of emotion finally leads to mending a rift between father and son, and as real tears fell from Kenneth’s eyes, we found our cheeks wet as well. The importance of family and breaking down boundaries was really emphasised in TANGO, and even young Dylan Jenkins had his turn in the spotlight as he stood up for his family when others made fun of them, a natural actor who will certainly go places with even more experience on the stage.
Kwok Wai Yin’s set was beautifully wrought, showcasing various local facades, from a restaurant to a simple but effective living room. This was supported by James Tan’s imaginative lighting design: The amazing projection design was done by Genevieve Peck,utilizing well-planned visual projections, all it took for a scene change was an ingenious, simple flick of a switch.
TANGO is very much a representation of Joel Tan’s voice as his every word oozes with significance. So much of TANGO is felt on a real, relatable level, and touches on issues that affect not just the LGBT community, but every human being, from familial relationships to romantic ones. Of course, LGBT issues remain at the forefront of its story, stemming mostly from the continued prejudice and homophobia rampant in Singapore, leading to real social problems such as fears of coming out and self-hate of being homosexual. At the end of each scene, the cast would go on stage and read out public reactions to the events that transpired in the previous scene in the form of extracts and quotes from Facebook and media outlets, giving the play’s issues a sense of urgency by linking it back to the present.
One particular scene which touched us was Benmin coming clean to his aunt about being gay. Taking lots of courage to do so, he ran the risk of completely alienating her after coming out. With help from Elaine (in a strong pivotal performance from Karen Tan), Benmin successfully comes out and manages to maintain his relationship with Poh Lin. Although Poh Lin has not completely changed her view of homosexuality, she realises the severity of her actions, and the impact words and bigotry can have on the lives of others, bringing hope that there is a brighter future for us all yet.
Ultimately, TANGO paints a picture of the fast changing definition of family and how prejudice and bigotry tears all families apart. TANGO’s success as an original script hopefully leads to even more great original works from Pangdemonium, who have almost certainly cemented their position as one of, if not the most consistently high-performing theatre companies in Singapore, producing one emotionally charged piece after another. It’s theatre like this that shouldn’t be receiving an R18 rating, as a play that has universal messages that should be heard by all – with youths coming to terms with their sexuality at younger ages these days and thrusting themselves headfirst into a new world through the often dodgy introductory lesson of apps, TANGO acts as a means to educate these youths about taking them with a pinch of salt and that they aren’t the be all and end all of gay lives, and that being gay and having a happy family is possible.
TANGO is an urgent call to break preconceived notions of homosexuality and the ‘ideal family’, replacing conservative bigotry and hate with mutual respect and understanding for a new set of values that may differ from tradition, but are nonetheless, fully deserving of equal love and acceptance. Gay lives and relationships may seem as simple as two people falling in love, but come with their own sets of complications to navigate and require a lot more effort to nurture and develop. Whether you’re gay or straight, a youth or adult, come watch this play and be convinced that one day, conservative Singapore will learn to see that love is love in families that come in any number of forms. All it takes is the first step towards a little more tolerance.
Photo Credit: Crispian Chan
Performance attended on 20/5/17 (Matinee)
TANGO (R18) plays at the Drama Centre Theatre from 19 May to 4 June. Tickets available here