If ever How Drama wanted to make a statement, they sure as heck are doing just that, with that new show, unabashedly titled Big Brown Girl. Originally slated to take place earlier this year during the Esplanade’s Flipside 2021, Big Brown Girl is now receiving a December staging, simultaneously playing in-person and streaming live online to round off the year.
Co-created by Ross Nasir and Melissa Sim of How Drama, the production is decidedly different from the company’s signature Fat Kids Are Harder to Kidnap sketch comedy series, instead presenting a one-woman show that plays on the new normal of dating apps. Starring Ross, the show centres on Ruby, a self-professed big brown girl from Singapore who is looking for that special someone in her life. With her handy dandy dating app, along with audiences to help her make some major storyline decisions, can she find her perfect match?
“How Drama has always been about interaction, and for this show, we wanted to home it on that once again,” says Ross, on the show’s concept. “We were inspired by dating apps, and similar to how audiences had a choice of which plays we would perform in Fat Kids, we wanted to give them the power to make storyline decisions. In a way, it’s a gamification of the theatre genre, and to give them that sense of control, and maybe, they’ll come back again to try catching the storyline they didn’t get to see!”
Commenting on the title, Ross laughs, particularly with how much of a misnomer Fat Kids was by comparison. “We did think of several other titles, but we ended up deciding to just tell it like it is, as advertised, to represent how honest this show is when it comes to the character I’m playing,” she says.
“Both the character of Ruby and the men she dates are partly based on experiences that I have gone through, along with the collective experiences from people that I know who are big and/or brown and/or girls, but either way, it’s grounded in real life,” she continues. “While it doesn’t represent the universal experience of all big brown girls, but there’s definitely parts of it that the majority of us can relate to, right down to the idea of starting a relationship with someone you meet on Tinder, Coffee and Bagel or Bumble.”
In many ways, the very idea of even placing a big brown girl front and centre is revolutionary in and of itself, considering how rarely such characters play romantic leads in media, and perhaps, marks a slow but certain change in mindset and attitudes. “I think nowadays, there’s a little less prejudice, though the idea of big as beautiful is still not widely accepted,” comments Ross. “You do have more body positive influencers now, even in South Korea, where beauty standards are often so narrow, and in Singapore, we’re seeing a growing movement where women are learning to be more comfortable with their bodies.”
“It’s interesting how these days, people still say ‘I feel fat’, as if it’s a feeling rather than a fact, and it’s held by women of every shape and size,” she adds. “It’s a difficult mindset to change – the idea of being ‘fat’ is still very difficult for people to accept, owing to the negative connotations to the word. But the movement towards acceptance isn’t stopping anytime soon, and I hope that this show adds to the narrative and conversation.”
These days, plus size women onscreen and onstage are growing, with stars like Lizzo or Melissa McCarthy making it in their careers. “Growing up, the only big women I saw onscreen were Rosie O’Donnell and Oprah back in the day, and now, thankfully, there’s more representation out there,” says Ross. “This show then, is a celebration of being a big and brown woman, and I hope the show encapsulates both the elements of romance and comedy, and the audience ends up laughing along with us as they follow Ruby’s journey.”
Speaking on the hybrid presentation style of the show, Ross explains how the last two years of the pandemic have allowed the company and presenting partners Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay to grow and understand how best to navigate mixing the virtual world with the live. “Over 2020 and 2021, we were watching every theatre show we could online, and we were certain we didn’t want it to be a one camera experience where it just shows a single angle the whole time,” says Ross. “We have multiple cameras onstage to capture different angles and close-ups, and in some ways, the online experience might be just as intimate as the live one. It’s been a good learning curve, and I think even the delay from May allowed us to introduce better tech and ideas that enhance the experience, and whether you watch it live or online, it will be a full on interactive experience.”
Big Brown Girl, as such a new form of theatre, defies definition at present, but Ross describes it as a hybrid mini musical, fitting for the Flipside series as a sort of revue that lets audiences see and experience the lighter side of the arts. “We do want to see how it’s received, and hopefully, we get international audiences online as well,” says Ross. “It’s a Fringe-type show that’s very tour-able and can be tweaked slightly to relate better to international audiences, and if the opportunity comes up, we’d love to do that. How Drama has always been aware of audience fatigue, and that’s why our shows tend to be kept short, and so far, it’s worked well for us.”
And for the future? “As an artist, I guess I want to have the opportunity to do everything, and both Melissa and I at How Drama want to stretch ourselves, and put forward stories that aren’t commonly being told,” Ross concludes. “Hopefully, we do get to take Big Brown Girl elsewhere in future, perhaps develop other hybrid mini musicals in the same style, and as with Fat Kids, get younger actors and new faces involved as well. But for now, I just want to put my best foot forward and nail this run of Big Brown Girl next week.”
Big Brown Girl runs from 10th to 12th and 17th to 19th December 2021 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio and online. Tickets available here