Faking it till you make it only gets you forked.
Last seen as part of the 2018 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, local actress Jo Tan’s debut play is back – now with the support of The Finger Players and re-imagined as a one woman show.
Directed by Chong Tze Chien and written and performed by Jo herself, Forked is a play that’s all about identity. Based partially on her own experiences studying abroad, the concept of finding home and place only when you miss it certainly isn’t a new one, as Forked follows highly-westernised Singaporean Jeanette Peh as she makes a life-changing decision and chooses to abandon law school to pursue her dream career of acting instead. Flying to London to study, she’s immediately labelled as one of the “Asian students”, and her attempts to correct her fellow students’ grammar certainly don’t win her any points. When asked by lauded acting teacher Baptiste Laroche to speak in her ‘native language’ and perform a more honest version of herself, Jeanette realises that she doesn’t really know who she is at all.
In essence, Forked is meant to act as a platform for Jo to show off her acting chops and range of accents, giving her an opportunity to play a series of characters of varying ethnicities and backgrounds. Compared to the previous version, Jo has since cut down on the number of characters featured, zooming in on Jeanette’s story to give greater focus on the core elements of the play and highlight her struggles as a Singaporean learning to live alone in a foreign country. As Jo rapidly switches between accents from French to Chinese, British to Singaporean, audiences are reminded of the way each and every person has a tendency to code switch in the presence of different people, afraid to be our ‘true selves’ simply because we’re ashamed of our smatterings of Singlish (certainly, we’re reminded of that constantly with the Speak Good English Movement’s latest campaign telling us to be understood ‘from Eunos to Edinburgh’ or ‘from Bayfront to Boston’).
Certainly, Jo’s script does raise a lot of familiar sentiment, from disappointed parents who’d rather she pursue a more practical option, to the constant realisation that money is simply never enough, and even highlights the occasional, crushing feeling of self-doubt and loneliness one experiences. The latter especially is brought to life by Forked’s veteran creative team of designers, with Lim Woan Wen’s lighting and Darren Ng’s sound design bringing the bleak nature of coming home after a day in school to life, with Jo (as Jeanette) facing the long journey on the Tube and enhances her inherent solitude with long shadows and emotive music. Chan Silei’s set is also beautifully constructed, segmenting the stage into clear, distinct ‘locations’ that allow for Jo to move from one place to another quickly with just a few steps, from the comfort of her own room to school.
As director, Chong Tze Chien’s vision helps to set Jo up for success, providing a visual and directorial framework to shape the script’s potential into reality. Forked, however, may have been overambitious as a one woman show. Often, Jo jam-packs her scenes with too many character transitions, and faces difficulty in maintaining consistent accents for each one, especially when they engage in ‘conversation’ with each other that detracts from the effectiveness of the play. In addition, with the use of surtitles for the hearing-impaired, it becomes glaringly obvious when Jo flubs her lines, making it more distraction than creative improv.
With regards to the actual theme of identity itself, Forked takes its title from how Jeanette uses a fork to eat her noodles instead of chopsticks, and represents the desperate need to reject one’s own cultural heritage in an attempt to impress the Western world with her assimilation instead. The many characters of Forked are varied and adhere to familiar archetypes one would have encountered before. In particular, the other students at Jeanette’s school are immediately recognizable, with their range of ethnicities and backgrounds evident in Jo’s performance, yet all sharing sharing a similar drive and hunger to find success in the world of acting.
There are plenty of moments that have potential to be mined for a far stronger play, such as the chance to play up Jeanette’s relationship with her parents to evoke the power of family being there to support her through thick and thin – her father, as a driving instructor, is even prepared to sell the car just to help her out financially in London. However, Forked’s main issue lies with how Jo ends up spreading herself too thin. There is a lot that Jo hopes to achieve with this play, so much that the audience is never given sufficient time to invest fully in any of them, not even our protagonist Jeanette. It takes some effort then to dig deep and find meaning in Jeanette’s own loneliness, and how she is alienating herself via the accent walls she puts up in trying to be someone she’s not.
Forked is a valiant attempt to find meaning out of a situation plenty of Singaporeans may not be aware of – transforming the usually majority Chinese person into a minority in the Western world, and asking questions about how we should see ourselves and behave in such situations. It’s evident that Jo has poured a lot of herself into this show, and Forked is really Jo doing what she loves best, putting in all she can from the moment the show begins with vocal warmups, stretches and full commitment to her role, even with an injured leg. In spite of its flaws, it is evident that Forked is a labour of love, one that Jo has sacrificed blood, sweat and tears over to reach this point, and shows that she does indeed have the ideas, experiences and stories to tell to find success in the future.
Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography
Performance attended 16/8/19
Forked plays from 15th to 18th August 2019 at the Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets available on Peatix