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N.O.W. 2020: King by Jo Tan (Review)

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Using drag as a form of female empowerment in this one woman show by Jo Tan.

Under T:>works’ N.O.W. Festival of Women, diversity is the name of the game, with women of all backgrounds and personalities celebrated through its range of programmes. And with this year’s edition, that even includes the rarely seen concept of the drag king, as highlighted in Jo Tan’s one-woman show King. 

Originally conceived as a theatrical production, King was instead re-conceived as a live performance on YouTube, using this new platform as a means to explore alternative presentation forms and styles. Directed by Jasmine Ng, and written and performed by Jo Tan, one-woman show King centres on mousy office lady Geok Yen, as she falls into the world of drag after dressing up as a man during the annual office party. Adopting her alter ego ‘Stirling de Silva’ (a ‘refined’ ah beng type), Yen then goes on a journey of self-discovery as she navigates her new life, and what the confidence boost can do for her.

In the same vein as Jo’s previous show ForkedKing sees her taking on multiple characters throughout the performance to showcase Yen’s journey. Besides Yen and Stirling, she also plays Yen’s long-suffering fiancé oblivious to his fiancée’s desires; his overconfident best friend; the slutty secretary; the queer Caucasian boss who’s a flaming drag queen by night, the gormless male colleague; and the sassy drag mother.

While we would have liked to see a little more depth given to each character, we understand their purpose of being simple, easy to identify stereotypes to aid Jo’s almost instantaneous transitioning between characters. This is no easy feat for the medium; while in a theatre, actors would often be given at least a few seconds to change positions or wait for a lighting cue to mentally prepare them for the shift, here, Jo must immediately adopt new accents and physicality, with the help of only the occasional prop and change in camera angle, and it’s evident that much effort has gone into practicing each change seen throughout the play. 

King’s story of a shy woman finding inner strength feels like a familiar one, but Jo adds complexity to the tale by bringing up issues of gender inequality, the presentation of gender, and the viability of embracing one’s identity in society. Suspension of disbelief aside (‘Stirling’ manages to slay a full-on lipsync number with no preparation), King works best when Jo is raising the hard-hitting questions, such as whether ‘Stirling’ has any responsibility to the drag scene, if drag queen culture in itself is insulting to women, and of course, the parts where she confronts ideas of ‘appropriate behaviour’, and to what extent we should repress our personalities for the sake of societal norms.

Jo’s writing brims with potential, her script containing genuinely funny lines and real emotional scenes. Seeing the world of drag through Yen’s innocent eyes is refreshing, and we are endeared to this woman torn between what is expected of a woman, and the unexpected manifestation of all her suppressed personality traits into her drag alter-ego. Watching Yen at times become confused about her own identity, to the extent she begins to have conversations with ‘Sitrling’, shows how he is far more than just a character she puts on, and an essential part of her identity that can be counted on to draw strength from, whether as a means of expression to tell husband-to-be how she feels, or as a source of comfort when her boss is in emotional distress. For Yen, drag is an expression of freedom, and to be everything that society says a woman should not be.

One of the most emotional moments in King sees Jo playing drag queens Mama Lemon and Anita Hero, who chide Yen on having the privilege of being accepted in society both as her normal self, and as an entertainer in the club when in drag. The drag queens then remind Yen that for the queers, they are still very much outcasts of society, and it is only in the gay club that they can truly feel free, and feel at home, drawing our attention to the ways that homosexuality is still discriminated against even today. 

King may raise plenty of problems and question what is wrong with both the lack of equality and presentation of gender both in and out of the drag world, but at its heart, has a far simpler message. Early on in the play, Yen mentions how Milo, as a hot chocolate drink, was unlikely to have sold well in humid Singapore. Yet, by marketing it as ‘tak giu’ (literally ‘kick ball’), it gained an association with soccer, branding itself as a sports drink and now a mainstay of stadium vending machines. In the same vein, change is not something that comes to us by waiting, but by taking our destiny into our own hands, and manifesting it as a we wish. In the eternal words of RuPaul: if you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else? For Yen, that means being comfortable enough to allow herself to be free, releasing her suppressed self through the power of drag, in order to truly find happiness.

King was available on T:>Works’ YouTube till 2nd August 2020, 11.59pm.  

The Virtual Festival of Women: N.O.W. took place online from 15th July to 2nd August 2020. For more information, visit their website here. Donate to T:>Care here

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