Humanitarian workers go through dreary office politics just like you and me.
The issue of refugees and mass migration has been one of the hottest topics on everyone’s lips in recent years, with many a play made about the problems the displaced go through themselves. But few plays have actually dealt with the oft forgotten players in the crisis – the humanitarian aid workers tirelessly toiling day after day to ensure that aid is maximized and efforts continually made towards making a marked change for the better.
Written by Huzir Sulaiman and directed by Claire Wong, Checkpoint Theatre’s Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner dives straight into crises the workers themselves face, following the international staff of a refugee camp as they encounter treacherous, bureaucratic organisations, unpredictable rebel soldiers, and their own internal team politics. The play’s title refers specifically to an ill-conceived fundraising event the team initially hopes to achieve, one that unfortunately, never comes to fruition.
The driving force of the play quickly eschews the dinner to instead focus on a kidnapping and hostage situation, which, over the course of the evening, follows a series of interrogations of each team member as we slowly piece together how it happened in the first place. Each of these scenes then segues into a flashback, allowing us to better understand each character’s backstories, reasons for joining the cause, and their own burdens to bear.
In her direction, Claire Wong shifts between the naturalistic and the interpretive, occasionally leading to moments of theatrical brilliance. When first introduced to the cast, we see them bathed in shadow while they work, chairs becoming pneumatic drills and tables become obstacles to crawl over and under. Coupled with .gif’s trippy, electronic live music of spoken word and surreal beats, and bathed in Lim Woan Wen’s dramatic lighting, some of the scenes can only be described as an ethereal, dream-like interpretation of life as a humanitarian worker.
Yet, where Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner falters is in its characters and their storylines. Over the course of the evening, what plays out is a lengthy look into the backstories of each of the seven team members, getting to know their reasons for joining the cause and their own burdens to bear. This is a format that, while potentially interesting for an episodic television series, ends up dedicating an unbalanced amount of time with each character, such that at times, they come off as token stand-ins for a certain archetype Checkpoint is trying to represent and tick off an invisible box, rather than fully rounded characters. Many of the characters end up feeling extraneous due to their one note developments, with almost no character growth at all, and could easily be removed without affecting plot development or having any impact on other characters or the audience’s attitude towards the play.
Perhaps of the characters, it is New Zealand-based actress Dawn Cheong, as worker Sara Chiu, who is given the most emotional legwork to do during the performance, and can be considered our protagonist, undergoing the most traumatic incident of all the characters during the play, even performing a Lady Macbeth-like monologue that must be commended for its difficulty in execution. However, it is an odd choice to have given her a #MeToo-esque storyline and quest for justice ending up overshadowing the main thrust of the play and the rest of the characters, one that tears attention away from the far greater and more pertinent issue of the violence happenings outside of the camps, to the locals and not to the workers.
As much as we hate to play the game of ‘oppression Olympics’ where we compare who suffers more, it seems that in the light of an entire war-torn, third world nation, Sara’s singular, personal trauma is insignificant given the context, as opposed to the traumas suffered by the countless unnamed citizens she is surrounded by and dedicates her life to helping. Yet, never once do we actually feel as if any of the characters, in their heart of hearts, genuinely want to actually help those around them, more concerned with running away from their own first world problems and kowtowing to their superiors than making a change. There is little to no reason why we should care what happens to them.
In particular, it is Emil Marwa’s character Mike Miller, our de facto leader and white British man, who lacks the most nuance, one that leaves us feeling no fear or attachment for his character that his actions or predicament never truly registers as something to fear. Never once do we ever see him as the supposed white saviour he is made out to be, nor do we even truly have any reason to care if he lives or dies, his position as irreplaceable as any of the other characters with the next volunteer who shoots their hand up for the role.
Even the initial kidnapping plot becomes little more than an afterthought, with little consequences for the hostage that, as much as it does highlight the inefficiencies, bias and bureaucracy of large organisations, ends up giving the audiences a regretful sense of investment in the play and its characters that makes us constantly question if we should even side with them or not, and their self-gratification from doing this act of humanitarian charity to make themselves feel better.
Although armed with good intentions to humanize the humanitarian workers, Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner ultimately feels like a misfire, with the many ideas it attempts to cram in making this an unfocused play, one that leaves us feeling cold towards its characters and completely unsure why we should be championing humanitarian work at all if it is so wrapped up in corruption. Most damning of all is perhaps the fact that its plot could well be lifted up and inserted into an office setting, and would still be completely viable, where the backdrop of a refugee camp is never specific to the plot, severely reducing the supposed high stakes it attempts to establish.
At the end of the day, we are left with little more sympathy for those that choose to do humanitarian work than when we began, unsure why we should feel any more care for them than we already do, and armed only with the new knowledge that quite simply, as far flung a third world country they choose to work in, they remain unable to escape the same awful office politics and difficult superiors as the rest of us.
Photo Credit: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures
Performance attended 24/5/19
Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner ran from 24th to 26th May 2019 at the Victoria Theatre.
The 2019 Singapore International Festival of the Arts runs across various venues from 16th May to 2nd June 2019. For more information and the full lineup of shows, visit their website