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An Interview with the Creatives Behind Tanah•Air 水•土 – A Play In Two Parts by Drama Box

Tanah Air: A phrase in Malay that means ‘homeland’ in English, and forming the overarching theme of Drama Box’s newest work – Tanah•Air 土:A Play In Two Parts, premiering this week as part of Malay Culturefest 2019. Perhaps beyond all the Bicentennial plays this year that’ve sauntered past the history of pre-Raffles and into modern Singapore history, Tanah•Air might just be the only one that dives deep into the stories of the indigenous Malays and Orange Seletar.

Says Drama Box artistic director Kok Heng Leun, who will be co-directing both plays: “About 3 years ago, I was reading some stories in the Malay annals and was looking for more material. I came across Isa Kamari’s novel Duka Tuan Bertakhta and another book about the Orang Seletar. I started to think about the people in Singapore even before Raffles, and who are today facing issues of land and identity. These are contemporary issues not isolated to the Orang Laut, and we wanted to find a way of telling their stories because they’ve simply been forgotten and become virtual unknowns today.”

In the first part, titled Tanah (land), Heng Leun will collaborate with director Koh Wan Ching on a script by Neo Hai Bin adapted from Duka Tuan Bertakhta. Perhaps most prominently, while the original novel was written in Malay, Hai Bin’s script will instead be in Mandarin. Says Heng Leun: “There’s something interesting about accessing these stories in Chinese, mostly because I first encountered a lot of these stories in that language. I wanted to see how we could encapsulate these cultures and ideas in a Chinese way without appropriating it, and think about intercultural issues as we mediate these themes and issues in a language of our choice.”

Image result for Duka Tuan Bertakhta

Says writer Hai Bin on coming onboard this project: “Tanah uses the tradition of Chinese story-telling and the physical movements of actors, so audience hears a story that took place 200 years ago, and get a visceral sense of the struggle of the Malay aborigines during the colonisation years. After reading the novel, we both thought that we had never heard about this version of history, and most Singaporeans may not have either. We wanted to present this Malay story to the Chinese community. We wanted more people to know the story of this land, told from the Malay aborigines. We believe that the story needs to be told, needs to be passed down, and needs to be remembered.”

He adds: “The greatest challenge was how the creative team took inspirations from the book, and re-imagined the story through the lens of two women: an Orang Laut and the queen of the Malay royalty, and how the two react to the effects of colonisation, and losing the connection to their land. We only spoke to Isa Kamari after we’d completed the script, and he was actually quite happy that we took artistic liberty and developed a play that was inspired by his novel!”

Says co-director Wan Ching: “We struggled with issues of representation and developing a vocabulary that is responsive to culture and tradition. We also struggled with translation, not just of spoken language but also of the translation from literary to theatrical language. The word that came up a lot during my work with Heng Leun was excavation, and we try to excavate what lies beneath, in historical terms and political terms. What are our deepest emotions and struggles as a human being living on this land. Therefore the performance location becomes a site for excavation, and we became interested in looking at the performance venue (the Malay Heritage Centre lawn) that is richly layered and complex.”

In terms of her directorial style, which will experiment with oral traditions such as street storytelling and recitations, Wan Ching explains: “Tanah is a tapestry drawing from literary traditions of the 19th century, including Munshi Abdullah’s Hikayat Abdullah and Tuan Simi’s poems. In terms of movement, we followed several trajectories in generating a movement vocabulary. With my background in Chinese dance, I was particularly interested in Chinese xiqu and how it is based on imagery rather than representation. Cast member Lian Sutton even has a Silat-based practice, while Jereh Leung has a background in contemporary dance. We did not intentionally try to amalgamate any forms but there is definitely some dialogue in terms of training and the generating of material and sharing material from our individual practices.”

On his own learning experiences from being a part of the project, Hai Bin adds: “The theatre seeks to tell stories. Stories help us make sense of who we are, where we are (both in space and in time), where we came from and where we should go from here and now. We learn from the past and from the dead. Our imagination is activated, and it flows and brings us to places and possibilities that we previously could not have travelled to. Such is the job of the artist: to provoke, to tease, to show, to open up new possibilities of the human condition. To inspire and show that we can get better, in spite of our inherent flaws, because we learn.”

“When I first read the novel, I realised I didn’t know anything about the Malay aborigines and their story. I started to research and realised that information is actually very much available, and easily accessible. We hope that watching Tanah will inspire people to start looking up this piece of history. It deserves to be remembered. It also deserves to be remembered— for us to make sense, piece together, and recall this piece of history.”

Right after Tanah, Drama Box will be moving audience members from the lawn to the auditorium, where they will present Air (water),a verbatim performance co-directed by Kok Heng Leun and Adib Kosnan, and written by Zulfadli ‘Big’ Rashid. Air, named for its concerns with the seafaring Orang Seletar, another group of people who have had issues with displacement, little recorded history and their current situation of being caught and resettled on the southern coast of Johor, despite their nomadic nature.

Says playwright Big: “Air was adapted from interviews conducted with the Orang Seletar people, both by us and a group that was already documenting them. It’s literally hours of material, and our task was to figure out which were the most important and interesting parts we needed to present to audiences onstage. We narrowed it down to about 5 distinct ‘characters’ who would be featured, and from there it was kind of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle as we figured out how to script it.”

“Prior to this project, I only vaguely knew about the people who lived in Singapore pre-colonisation,” he continues. “Learning about the Orang Seletar, it was so strange because they were literally living just across the Causeway, as Bumiputera of Malaysia. They have protected status, but historically, they were nomadic, where they zipped around the straits and called both Singapore and Malaysia their home. They weren’t very aware of the border politics that ensued between the two countries, and it ended up a case where some of their relatives came to Singapore and stopped when they tried to go back to Johor. Because of this line we drew across nations, their lives were quite severely affected.”

“Even beyond physical lines, during one of the interviews, it was quite interesting because I found out they don’t consider themselves Malay. There’s some historical record of their past, but it’s all very touch and go, and even today, they don’t really talk much about it amongst themselves, or get much attention at all in the media that recognises them as indigenous people, except maybe this court case that came up in the papers. They end up keeping record via oral history, passed down from person to person in the form of stories, and there’s really no way of knowing how true something is except for you to trust their collective memory.”

“What I did then was to come up with a narrative to showcase them as a people and their culture,” Big adds. “Including their beliefs in superstition, and then about their future and how they perceive themselves. As a playwright, my aim then is to inform audiences that these people do exist, and with their own set of elaborate histories. We should recognise that there are minorities even within minorities in Singapore. The play itself isn’t meant to be melancholic and isn’t meant to be romantic. It’s meant to present fact, but how the audience receives it is dependent on themselves.”

Says co-director Adib: “Air isn’t going to be a typical play, in the narrative sense, but from the way we’ve curated it, it’s meant to feel almost like the audience is meeting each of these characters in person in this shared space and trying to get audiences to understand their situation as they tell their stories. It’s still ultimately left to the audience to decide how to interpret them, but what we do want to do is convey some of the frustrations they’ve faced, and give audiences the context of why they might feel this way.”

Interestingly, Adib has worked on a rather similar project just last year, having acted in a staging of Alfian Sa’at’s Anak Bulan di Kampong Wa’Hassan, which dealt with the last kampong in Singapore. Says Adib: “I’ve always been interested how we as theatremakers can impact the narrative in our presentation of stories, and I’m always passionate about sharing stories of people who may not have the opportunity to do so or feel as if they have nothing to share. For the Orang Seletar, there’s this frustration with progress that some of them experience, and especially with how the borders have limited their mobility, compared to when they could, at one point, really roam the seas freely. Much like Anak Bulan di Kampong Wa’Hassan, at the heart of Air was a lot of thought and reflection on where these people are coming from. While we can never fully know what it was like for them, I want to create moments during the show where audiences are completely drawn into the stories and imagine what life was like for these people over time.”

“At the end of the day,” Adib continues, “I want audiences to think about the people who get left behind. Sometimes, you can feel helpless because you’re not sure what exactly you can do as an individual, but hearing these stories can be a good first step because you’re honouring them as people and real human beings, without romanticising them too much. The Orang Laut have always seemed like some distant spiritual entity we learnt about in our social studies textbooks, so this is our way of giving them form. I also want audiences to think about what we take for granted, and what it might be like to be in their shoes, and how they feel that they’re now going through all this because they didn’t claim the space, and the only way to get recognised is from official authorities, and the state they’ve found themselves in now.”

Heng Leun concludes: “Both Tanah and Air echo each other in terms of their shared themes of ownership, of identity, of land and possession and dispossession. They’re different, but connected as companion pieces. I want audiences to recognise these characters as real people, not just a story, and hearing them speak about the sea, the places like the fisheries near Tuas and Punggol, I think about how when they were just roaming the waters, there was no ‘nation’, and everywhere could be called home. But when people started taking advantage of that by occupying the land, they no longer had a home. In our interviews with the Orang Seletar, I recall them saying how much respect they have for nature, such as how even if they go fishing one day and have a big catch, they must never be greedy and keeping wanting more, or they’ll get in trouble with the sea spirits. For them, it’s never about exploitation, but about co-existence, something we could definitely learn from and apply to our own lives as well.”

Tanah•Air plays from 16th to 20th October 2019 at the Malay Heritage Centre, and is jointly organized with the Malay Heritage Centre, as part of Malay Culturefest 2019. Tickets available from Eventbrite

 

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