Using theatre as a framework for diversity of thought.
As human beings who have evolved and adapted to our environment over millennia, change is a constant in our lives. But as a consequence of that, should minorities then be expected change, to assimilate and bend to the majority’s will?
Restaged for the first time since its premiere in 2010, The Necessary Stage’s (TNS) ______ Can Change examines the oppression of the majority on individual will and thought, and the pressure to conform. Written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan, ______ Can Change is a decidedly post-modern work that rejects a traditional mode of narrative theatre, instead taking the form of a government-style workshop, perhaps representing the subtle tyranny of how authorities attempt to impose their views on citizens.
The performance begins as audiences are introduced to our performers, each one dressed in professional, executive attire (designed by MAX.TAN), as they take on the role of civil servants. They expound on the dangers of importing Western ideals and influences from social media (dismissing hashtags like #lovewins and #metoo), and the importance of putting the community’s needs above self. With the support of Jevon Chandra’s stylish multimedia presentation, featuring hip minimalist graphics and smooth animation, it feels almost uncannily easy to let our guard down and buy into this narrative.
The show then segues into three provocatively titled playlets, each one representing a different minority in Singapore that has the propensity to change, sacrificing their own individuality for the sake of the state and larger community. In the first playlet, Indians Can Change, Devaki is an Indian banker (Masturah Oli) forced to confront her colleagues’ use of brownface during a company D&D, while her concerns fall on the deaf ears of her Chinese husband (Joshua Lim) and HR manager (Karen Tan). When the situation spirals out of control, an external consultant is brought in (Lian Sutton) and a town hall is organised.
As a theatrical piece, there are plenty of nods to microaggressions commonly faced by the Indian community in Singapore, while also exemplifying their frustrations at how easily they are dismissed as the ‘angry Indian person’. Thanks to Masturah Oli’s performance, it is easy to sympathise with Devaki’s plight, and by the end of the playlet. Masturah does especially well during an improv segment taking on questions from the audience, as she answers them all in character, and it almost feels as if she has been brainwashed and defeated, unwilling to fight a losing battle any longer.
In the second playlet, Homosexuals Can Change, Joshua Lim plays Daniel, a gay man who is pressured to conform to heterosexuality due to his love for his mother, and his inability to reconcile his sexuality with his faith in God. The resulting narrative is straightforward, where he chooses to suppress his homosexuality rather than ride out the challenges with his partner (Lian Sutton), resulting in a melodramatic but genuinely moving breakup (set to Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Mystery of Love no less) that shows the pain of forced conversion.
In a similar vein to Indians Can Change, while Daniel does claim to be ostensibly ‘happy’ by the end, one cannot help but read between the lines and wonder if he can truly live with his closeted self, and how long he can hide the truth from his new wife. The beauty of both these playlets lie in how despite the facade of happiness at maintaining the status quo, both Masturah Oli and Joshua Lim bring out the powerful feelings of pain both their characters experience hiding beneath their smiles, subtly criticising the need to continually force the unwilling into change.
In the final playlet, ______ Can Change goes fully meta, as the actors return in their corporate outfits to present Marxists Can Change, using the case study of The Necessary Stage being accused of being Marxists and using theatre as a means of politicisation back in the 1990s. Framed as a hopeful tale of reform and redemption, the playlet charts how Alvin and Haresh each went on to win the Young Artist Award, and eventually, Cultural Medallions, comparing their rise to ‘the Yellow Ribbon Project’.
Yet it ends on a darker note, mentioning how despite their success, the loss of their 20 year home at Marine Parade Community Centre made them wonder if their Marxist past has left them with an indelible black mark. Even if change has been expressed, can one fully divorce one’s self from their history? The irony of segueing immediately into the Q&A segment (integrated into the show itself) is not lost, as TNS was originally called out for the political nature of their forum theatre pieces, while the audience sat there asking both Alvin and Haresh about the theme of change and the past accusations against them.
As a whole, while _____ Can Change does seem to take on a non-partisan, state-perspective, there are enough subtleties to encourage audiences to look beyond the surface and form their own conclusions. With such an open-ended conclusion, _____ Can Change leaves us not with a message, but a framework for thought. As Alvin responds to one of the questions, it is not up to artists and cultural workers to bear the burden of education, but for audiences to make what we will of art, to go beyond the performance space and consider the multitude of views, and decide on what exactly constitutes change for the better, and how we will get there without destroying each other in the process. To change or not should be up to us, but we must as a society do the work and provide the space to make that choice, without forcing it on the unwilling.
Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography
________ Can Change plays from 10th to 14th November 2021 at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Tickets available from BookMyShow
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