Revival of Alfian Sa’at’s play about race relations in Malaysia still hits hard nine years later.
KUALA LUMPUR – Much like Singapore, Malaysia has never really had to deal with overt controversies over race and racism in the country, with most issues swept under the rug or smoothened over into silence. But in the beginning of 2011, Malaysia saw these underlying tensions brought to the fore, when Abdullah Hussain’s novel Interlok was reintroduced to the school syllabus. Garnering furore generated by a Hindu rights group, the novel was criticised on account of its demeaning portrayal of Indians.
Inspired in part by this controversy, Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at wrote the Malay play Parah, which follows four Form 5 schoolmates in Malaysia processing the controversy, while their own friendship is put to the test when issues of race are blown open. Parah remains one of Alfian’s strongest works in recent years, and showcases a strong balance between his flair for the dramatic and his ability to juggle the myriad of viewpoints and responses surrounding a controversial issue.
Even in 2020, while most of these issues may have once again receded into the shadows, they are certainly not gone, and a restaging of the play by the Instant Cafe Theatre Company is a welcome one. This Zoom version of Parah reunited original director Jo Kukathas, along with original cast members Farah Rani, Gregory Sze, Iedil Dzuhrie Alaudin, and Branavan Aruljothi, playing Melur, Kahoe, Mahesh and Hafiz respectively.
The very image of racial harmony, the tight-knit group of four are constantly hanging out at Melur’s house, studying together, joking around, and playing with each other. But underneath this casual facade, tensions begin to bubble, when a little rough play amongst the boys leads to trauma and resentment on Mahesh’s part, something that is only worsened when he sides with the Indian boys in class in refusing to study Interlok. Early on, we see Mahesh visibly uncomfortable with his friends using the derogatory term ‘keling’ to refer to him, and we are reminded how even words said ‘jokingly’ can be powerful enough to form cracks in a strong relationship. Contrary to the old adage, words can certainly end up hurting a lot more than sticks and stones with repeated use.
From there on, everything is suddenly seen through a racial lens, and the friendship becomes strained as the four friends engage in fierce debate over the ways that their families and perspectives have been shaped along racial lines. As much as they try to smooth things over, the fault lines only grow deeper with each passing scene, with Mahesh taking the issue up with the police, Kahoe and Hafiz’s bond over badminton severed, and Melur accused of being a loose woman by hanging out with the boys.
Performing live theatre on a digital platform comes with its share of risks, and it wouldn’t be theatre if there weren’t a few hiccups during the performance. Despite these, Parah succeeds on account of the powerful acting from its cast, each one committing entirely to their role, and delivering in both the facial expressions and characterisation. Even if they’re not physically in the same room, there is good effort to pretend that they are still interacting with each other, such as ‘passing’ a book from one screen to another, or how even within each room they are in, there are certain elements and furniture pieces that suggest they are in the same physical space.
Effective use of Zoom backgrounds further helps to transport each character to new scenes, but especially strong are the monologues that intersperse each scene. Most of these monologues take the form of ‘book reviews’ written by each character for homework, allowing us a glimpse into each character’s writing style and criticism of the work. When the background turns pure white for the monologues, it feels as if we are transported to their mindscape, a moment of peace and respite as they reflect on their own lives and the situation at hand.
The cast’s chemistry obviously benefits from the number of times they’ve performed this play together, and watching them interact, one feels their pain and confusion directed at each other the more the friendship falls apart. The cast’s performance is a layered one, and showcases depth to each character beyond simple anger or disappointment, each scene revealing complicated histories and lost futures in the company of each other that they are devastated by. If anything, the cast seems to be incredibly aware of the implications of their lines, contributing to the impact it has each time they argue with each other.
At one point there’s a beautiful metaphor that feels akin to Shakespeare’s ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, where Melur, in an attempt to defuse the tensions, considers the hibiscus flower (Malaysia’s national flower), and how we cannot understand the flower in full until we learn how to appreciate it. Much like the metaphor introduced, we come to learn that one cannot fully love a country until one learns all there is about it, and considers every facet before declaring a point of view.
What is perhaps most interesting is how on the surface, Parah appears to be the model representation of racial harmony, with two Malays, one Indian and one Chinese students as the best of friends. Yet by unpacking the use of common insults and stereotypes, Alfian manages to tease out the complications of race, class and background that the friends are forced to confront, and that a person is much more than just the colour of their skin or their nationality. Hafiz in particular, makes for a fascinating character study, as the ‘dumb’ one who is met with disbelief when he claims to join a literary group, and nurses a well of emotional trauma.
Dressed in their school uniform, we are also reminded that even students can understand the complications of race relations, and if not resolved in these formative years, are precisely what will come to seep into the very roots of a country’s foundations. All ideas begin in school, if these problematic ones are smoothed over and ignored, will only lead to greater tensions in adulthood.
In Parah’s final scene, following a heated argument, the group finds themselves atop a hill, pink-hued clouds above them as they engage in a friendly game of badminton. This seems to be a flashback to happier days, and only serves to emphasise how delicate and temporal the veneer of peace often is when deeper issues constantly seek to disrupt it. In a time of COVID-19, sensitivity and tensions are at an all-time high, where words hold power and can deepen fault lines with a single tweet or incendiary remark. Parah remains fiercely relevant even today, and reminds us that for a country to truly succeed and overcome crisis, it must first acknowledge its own flaws, seek to resolve them, and unite its people regardless of race for the sake of the future.
Performance attended 25/7/20.