Jo Tan tackles racism and identity in this story about a Singaporean fish out of water.
Jo Tan’s playwriting debut is a simple yet familiar story of one Singaporean girl with big dreams. In Forked, Ethel Yap plays Jeanette, a young aspiring actor who heads to London for drama school. Upon arrival in London though, Jeanette gets the biggest culture shock of her life when she’s sidelined to become one of the ‘Asian’ kids. Determined to fit in, Jeanette tosses away any semblance of her Singaporean roots to put on a new ‘posh’ accent, discovering some quirky characters, a boyfriend and even herself along the way.
Partially based off Jo’s own experiences studying in Paris, Forked is filled with plenty of ideas, something any Singaporean who’s studied overseas will understand perfectly. From parents putting no faith at all in an overseas education to the horror of being associated with stereotypical PRC nationals to even working in a cafe to sustain one’s daily expenses, there’s plenty of juicy material that Jo Tan has mined for comedy and relatability here. Jeanette even has her own YouTube vlog (aptly titled Stage Whispers), and Ethel Yap’s gorgeous singing voice is out to good use here as she sings the vlog’s ‘theme song’ live. A typical Singaporean Chinese might take their privilege for granted on a daily basis, but placed in a London context, the role is reversed as an Asian in a primarily Caucasian city, leading to the many issues of race and identity readily discussed in this play, and the ensuing confusion as to how Jeanette should even be presenting herself.
Forked has two plotlines in particular that stand out, serving to underscore the play’s concerns with racism and self-identity in a foreign land, and breaking away from these preconceived, arrogant notions so prevalent all around the world. The first, where Jeanette gets herself a rich Greek boyfriend (who later turns out to be a Muslim Cypriot, played by Jamil Schulze), touches on issues of interracial relationships, anti-Muslim rhetoric and general racism so prevalent in Western countries, as he becomes the target of racial slurs and accusations such as ‘terrorist’ or ‘brownskin’. In the second, Jeanette is pit against China national and fellow theatre student Yan Yan (Taiwanese actress Chang Tingwei, who milks the stereotype for all its worth) for a role in a potential BBC television series. In being asked to put on a Japanese accent, we’re reminded of the recent Ah Boys to Men uproar where an Indian actor was asked to play up his Indian accent for comedy. Here, Jeanette follows suit, refusing to play by their rules and losing the role in the process. It is these stereotypes that are so prevalent in our collective consciousness that shapes our attitudes towards people of different communities and racial backgrounds, an attitude characterised by our own arrogance that needs to change.
Chen Yingxuan’s direction allowed set changes to feel seamless amidst the spatial limitations of the black box space, while the cast has to be commended on their ability to change so quickly from one role to another, and sharing strong onstage chemistry and energy that makes their performances so believable and enjoyable. Even Jo Tan herself makes an appearance, showing off her ability to mimic accents for comedy as she plays (in voiceover) both a heavily accented Japanese woman, and an equally stereotypical French theatre teacher.
Ultimately, even amidst the problems inherent in this ambitious script (we wished it was a little more concise and compact), there’s plenty of ground Jo Tan manages to cover here. Forked‘s final universal message of the difficulty of staying true to one’s identity amidst the societal pressures of racism, both internal and external, comes through clearly. Perhaps then, in viewing what it’s like to be a minority in another country, audiences may better walk away from Forked with more compassion, empathy and understanding towards those around them.
Performance attended 26/1/18
Forked plays at the NAFA Studio Theatre from 25th – 27th January. Tickets available from SISTIC.