The Studios 2019: Miss British by The Art of Strangers (Review)
Post-colonial blues from the personal stories of three minority actresses.
With a title like Miss British, it’s easy to assume that the second show of the Esplanade’s 2019 The Studios Season is all about British identity. It’s a misnomer, and in fact, deals primarily with the impact, trauma and legacy that British colonialism has left behind on minorities. Directed by Felipe Cervera, Miss British comes at a timely moment as we remain in the heat of our bicentennial celebrations as we remember Singapore’s colonial and pre-colonial past, exploring how minority identities are shaped and colonial hangups continue to plague us all even today.
For the performance, the Esplanade Theatre Studio presented an unusual seating arrangement, as audience members sat on various squares (their colours resembling different human skin tones) across a few levels, all around the performance space. Cameras project a monochrome live feed of audience members in their natural state before the show onto twin screens on either side of the space, making us feel aware of our being watched and observed, discomforting us and allowing us to get a gauge of our fellow audience members. while performers Sharon Frese, Grace Kalaiselvi and Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai emerge from the wings dressed in simple, loose brown dresses and metallic necklaces, somewhat resembling chains (perhaps to recognize our continued enslavement to our colonial history), each placed in their own space as they begin to dance.
What follows as the show begins proper is a combination of song, dance and anecdote, each actress working together to perform a series of sketches, monologues and movements to form a loosely linked narrative about their experiences as minorities growing up in post-colonial Singapore, or in the case of the British Sharon, the home of the colonial master itself. Live music and steady drumming from Riduan Zalani provides an energetic beat for musical numbers, where the actresses come together to sing – Sangeetha tends to take the lead in these numbers, her clear voice soaring as she sings songs associated with prejudice and racial violence such as Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit, always leading into a chant of “white, brown and black” they echo. From time to time, the actresses perform a sketch, each playing slaves as they wash clothes and discuss the privilege of select slaves getting to live in the ‘big house’ before their (male) master arrives to rape them, reiterating the emotional scars that are passed from generation to generation, even when the physical bruises fade.
But perhaps the most poignant parts of the performance lie in the deeply personal stories we hear from each one of the actresses. The sincerity with which each one is recounted is part of what makes them so powerful, in addition to their thought-provoking, often revelatory accounts. While the stories cover a wide range of issues and at times feel slightly unfocused, individually, each story feels complete, each one with a beginning, middle, and reflective end. Sangeetha, for example, recalls the imaginary hierarchy of Singapore she creates as a child, where white males are at the top and Indian women are at the bottom. She remembers the surprise she feels in Western countries, where the white men look at her with desire, yet realizes later on that she is merely being exoticised. Grace, in growing up with her Indian mother, recalls setting aside her constant nagging for her mother to learn English when she sees her in lively conversation with a teacher, somehow getting by on personality alone. It is these remnants of the colonial past we never realize we cling to in our modern lives that come to light through these stories, revelations that upon their reveal, allow us to deprogramme and realign ourselves to carve out new identities for ourselves, reclaiming what was destroyed by the colonial masters who once considered us ‘savages’.
But of the three, it is perhaps Sharon Frese’s story that cuts through most of all. Sharon’s stories are all about traumas of rejection, a history she inherits from her own parents as they are personally invited back to rebuild London after the war, only to face rejection from the neighbourhoods on account of their skin colour. We listen to how she is a nomad and has always felt unwelcome, told since her primary school days in London that she is ‘British, not English’, and how her original home has changed to the point that even the old immigrants have forgotten what life is like, where they hate on new immigrants and vote Brexit to oust them. Loo Zihan’s monochrome video of Sharon going about an ordinary day in her life in Singapore plays on the screen as Sharon admits how tired she is of constantly moving around, thinking that finally, she has found a permanent home in Singapore, making it all the more sad that she once again, is rejected.
What Miss British ultimately presents is a collection of thoughts that lays the foundations for a more cohesive work, the personal stories interwoven with sketches, dance and song to represent the burdens the current generation continues to bear even years after we have been freed from colonial rule. But as much as this struggle is still an uphill climb for all three actresses, Miss British seemingly ends on a hopeful note as all three of them come together, singing and dancing joyously in solidarity. It is this action that represents a vow to remain steadfast in spite of these difficult pasts, determined to reclaim their identity as minority women in their own right, free at last of the metaphorical label of ‘Miss British’.
Photos Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
Performance attended 4/4/19
Miss British plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 4th to 7th April 2019. Tickets available from the Esplanade
The Studios 2019: The Weight Of A Stone In A Pocket plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio and Esplanade Annexe Studio from 28th March to 27th April 2019. Tickets and full lineup available from the Esplanade. For updates on the works, follow The Studios on Facebook