Learning what it truly means to stay strong in the face of death.
For years now, Drama Box and ArtsWok Collaborative’s Both Sides, Now community programme has been present to reach out to the public, engaging them through the arts as a means of starting a conversation about what it means to live well, and leave well. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, a typical Both Sides, Now programme in a public space was rendered impossible.
The solution – go hybrid, and perhaps garner even more audience members by taking the latest edition online, livestreamed from the Aliwal Arts Centre last weekend. This time around, Both Sides, Now is aimed specifically at addressing the Malay community, renamed Mengukir Harapan (‘carving hope’), with a new spin on the programme by turning it into the Kata-Kata Kita Variety Show.
Co-created by Drama Box Artistic Director Kok Heng Leun, and Leading Artists Moli Mohter and Adib Kosnan, with the heavy topic of death and departures, the main challenge for the creators of Mengukir Harapan is in finding that fine balance of seriousness against a more light-hearted tone to ensure that the topic isn’t as daunting as it may seem. A variety show then, seems to be the ideal way of addressing the various issues associated with death, and adjusting and arranging the segments to space out the heavier scenes and ensure it’s not too overwhelming.
Taking place in an HDB flat set, audience members feel like they’ve stepped into someone else’s home before the show even begins. This sense of ease is helped immensely by our stellar co-hosts Gloria Tan and Hatta Said, whose energy levels are maintained at a 10 each time they come onstage, making us feel welcome and like we’re settling in with family and friends to discuss the issues.
Along the way, a flurry of events awaits each evening. These include an opening song by talented young musician Khairul Afwan, before segueing into Radio Dukacita, where DJ Big reads letters of loss sent to him by the public. Perhaps the most powerful part of this segment is the live element to it, where DJ Big takes on a live caller willing to share their story during the livestream, testing his ability to make the caller feel comfortable, and use the instance as a topic of discussion.
To decompress, we are then led to a more light-hearted segment, with Pantang Dos and Don’ts, by hosts Hatta and Gloria, as they share their stories such as the worst condolence message ever received (or worse, one they sent out), leading to a deep discussion on how best to approach or tackle the issue of grief. What was effective about this segment was how our hosts led us to think from both the grieving party and their friends’ points of view, considering these different perspectives to better gauge how to respond (one of the best responses of the night happened to simply be: “is there anything I can do to help?”).
The live elements took a break with the screening of Sukar (Melepaskan), a pre-recorded drama performance following the lives of 3 siblings (played by Izzul Irfan, Dalifah Shahril and Farez Najid) as they deal with loss. Mimicking the style of a typical television soap, the episode we caught was well-paced, and presents the three siblings in a dilemma when an aunt experiences a heart attack, as they think back to their own mother’s death years ago, wracked with lingering guilt, and encapsulates the continuous and complicated process of grieving. If anything, we’re left to ponder over what the living have to go through, the trauma and the fear of facing death, and it is only when we know the pain that we are going through that we can begin the process of healing from it.
In the final segment of the programme, creators Adib Kosnan, Moli Mohter and Kok Heng Leun would come onstage to form a panel, as they brought on a guest speaker to share their story on working in related sectors. For the first night, we heard from Ms Halijah Bte Jantan, a palliative care nurse. Much of the time was spent listening to her story as a nurse, and the experiences she gained in her career in how to handle grieving family members of patients, and of course, her own emotional reaction to these patients at the end of their life. Halijah also shared about her harrowing journey as a cancer survivor, the pain of chemotherapy and how much her own family members and even friends could not understand the sheer amount of pain she was going through, physically and emotionally. Much of the information, while personal, was incredibly useful to hear, and provided audiences a better understanding of approaching those facing the end of life.
On the night we attended, one audience member was even brave enough to share his story, and provided an interesting perspective on the spectre of death; widowed for years after his late wife succumbed to cancer, he began to see such her condition as an opportunity for closure, where she made the most of her time in her final days to speak to her family and friends, and conclude her earthly affairs before the end.
Kata-Kata Kita, meaning ‘our words’, represents the stories of the community. In hearing all these accounts of people struggling with grief and loss, we offer our listening ear, learn from each other, and walk away comforted and braver than before. As Khairul Afwan ended off the night with a rousing rendition of Dayang Nurfaizah’s Di Pintu Syurga (‘Heaven’s Door’), we come to the realisation that life is not about living in the constant fear of death, but in preparing for it, can face it with confidence, and the knowledge that we are not alone in our grief.
Photo Credit: Zinkie Aw
Kata-Kata Kita Variety Show ran from 5th to 7th November 2021, both at Aliwal Arts Centre and Online. More information available here