From their very first production, Rupa co.lab has always delivered on arresting scripts about the intricacies of Malay culture, homing in on familial bonds of unusual household structures, and winning Best Original Script at our Bakchormeeboy Awards in 2019 for Nessa Anwar’s Rumah Dayak and 2021 for Hazwan Norly’s Pandan.
Now, a third member of Rupa co.lab will be making his debut with the company, with Raimi Safari’s Rindu di Bulan premiering at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2022. This time around, Rupa co.lab will be homing in on the common but underrepresented conversation surrounding adoption, and in Rindu di Bulan, an especially unusual type of adoption, where a Malay woman adopts a non-mahram child, and grapples with the problems in their relationship that arise because of it. Elsewhere, a damsel is stranded on the moon without her memory, but with an adult-sized poetry-spouting rabbit, as the absurd and the real collide in a single play to explore the power of love, hope and kinship. Speaking to both Raimi and director Adib Kosnan, we found out more about the creation process, and the culture of adoption in the Malay community.
“I started writing this script in 2020, just as we were going into lockdown,” says Raimi. “Staying alone, I was in total isolation, and looking out at the moon, I wondered whether there was someone out there as well. That led me to think about the Chang’e myth in Chinese culture, and I thought about how it’s only because we live in Singapore that we are so aware of these myths from other cultures, and how interwoven our society is.”
“But I wasn’t going to just write a story about Chang’e, and wanted to ground it in something realist,” he continues. “So I considered the theme of adoption in Malay families, particularly about a Malay family adopting a non-Malay son, and how to mix the two together. What anchored me to it was the connection to this year’s theme of The Helpers, and in our discussions, decided that we wanted to highlight how the kindness of humanity goes beyond family bloodlines and comes in unexpected forms and ways. Ultimately we want to push forward the message that love transcends all.”
Adoption is an unusual act to consider ‘kind’, considering that for the most part, adopted children are taken in by families who usually can’t conceive. But in the past, foster children and unofficial adoptions were far more common than they were today. “Adopting non-Malay children into Malay families is actually quite common in the Malay community: sometimes during Hari Raya you’ll run into an aunty who’s not Malay, and it’s clear she was adopted,” says director Adib Kosnan. “But you see, it’s the idea of having a bond, even if it’s non-organic, and you take responsibility to take care of this child. And that sums up the idea of helping each other out – it’s such a core part of our culture in post-war, post-independence Singapore, this other version of family.”
Naturally, such a topic would go far beyond the idea of help, to examine the personal struggles both adoptee and adopted go through in navigating their relationship through the ages. “Back in the 80s, people were freely giving up their children, and it was so common, it was a trend. How do you confront the fact that you were given away as a child?” questions Raimi. “I grounded my research in interviews with friends who grew up fostered and were given away, and my interviews focused on finding the high points and low points of their experience being fostered, to get to the heart of my realist story.”
Even when it comes to something as simple as buying a house, because the adoption wasn’t formal to begin with, poses several administrative problems for such adopted children. And it is such questions that only those who’ve been through it will know about, never the general public, something Raimi hopes to change with Rindu di Bulan.
“The Malay community has always been open about adoption, and very accepting of it,” Raimi continues. “At the same time, I wanted to dig deeper and think about the complications of adoptions even within the Malay community, not just the social, but also the religious, where the idea of the ‘mahram’ comes in. There are so many things to consider within the religious realm, such as ablution water, or wearing the hijab in front of your own son, as you have to be modest in the presence of non-mahram. How do you then balance all these religious complications with the basic need for love and closeness?”
There is so much heart that goes into wanting to tell the story right – even beyond interviewing adopted children, Raimi and Adib even wondered if incorporating the Chang’e myth might have been interpreted as an act of cultural appropriation, and went back and forth on its inclusion. “We approached Teater Ekamatra for advice, as well as Tan Beng Tian from The Finger Players, and they reassured us that this story doesn’t belong to anyone, and no one was gatekeeping it,” says Raimi. Adib chimes in with a very relevant point Beng Tian mentions – if they were careful enough to ask it in the first place, then it’s more than likely that they would be able to tell the story in a culturally sensitive method anyway.
On his evolution as a playwright, Raimi recalls his debut work, Lockdown (2014) with Hatch Theatrics. “That was a highly ambitious piece I did, where I dived into the deep end without having gone through proper process of a playwright, and it really stemmed from pure want and desire to put out something, like running before taking baby steps,” he admits. “After that, I decided to take a break to find myself, and wondered if I really wanted to continue doing this.”
The answer was a resounding yes – it wasn’t long before he was recruited into Malay playwriting community Main Tulis Group, and then joined Rupa co.lab, and for Raimi, it seemed that the universe was somehow telling him to stick with it, before finally, almost 7 years on from Lockdown, he is ready to present his next show. “Rupa co.lab works in a round robin as to how we present our work. So it started off with Nessa, then Hazwan, and now me. We were thankful that our submission got accepted by Fringe, and it was a good opportunity to present the work,” says Raimi.
Raimi’s writing is constantly evolving, and he credits both Rupa and Main Tulis Group for nurturing him. “As a member of the Main Tulis Group, I do find joy and comfort and warmth in these collectives and my growth is always inspired by these writers when we meet,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to tap on each other’s strengths and put them in our pieces, like how Nessa inspires the sentimentality, Nabilah her banter, and Hazwan the madness of his fantasy world. Rindu di Bulan also represents all of us at Rupa, and the journey we’ve taken together.”
In fact, after two years of being on the scene, we too are noticing how Rupa co.lab is carving out a clear voice and style for themselves, that Raimi attributes to how its members spend so much time together, influencing each other and sharing a common goal. “On the macro level, each play does look at the Malay family, but we go deeper than that,” comments Raimi. “The thing that connects the writing of Rupa is how we all want to dive into the deeper parts of the Malay community, like how Nessa’s Rumah Dayak was about uncovering youth and incarcerated youths in a safe house, while Hazwan’s Pandan examined sexual identity, and now myself, with the concept of adoption within Malay families.”
“I’ve seen how Raimi’s script has grown and evolved,” adds Adib, who is also a member of the Main Tulis Group. “When he first shared about it, I was drawn in to the idea of mythology and the core relationship between mother and son. I think I’m always drawn to telling stories about love, it’s something really moved me, and like what Raimi says, it’s really a product of the group and their influences.”
In terms of his directing style, Adib prides himself on his ability to tease out the intricacies of the family relationship displayed in the script, using his experience and emotions to craft a journey for the actors. Avoiding a purely didactic approach, he chooses to see the process of bringing a script to life as collaborative, bouncing ideas off of his team. “When I’m a playwright, I do feel comfortable directing my own work, but what I write on paper always evolves when it’s onstage,” he says. “So when I become a director, it’s about learning how to negotiate and find out how to see a script from different perspectives. I’m not here to do everything the writer wants, nor impose my own vision on the script. It’s about finding the middle ground, and how we figure it out as a team.”
“As a director, my aim is really to see the possibilities of different worlds, and allow myself to enter the world that Raimi has created, and extract what I’m best at – the dynamics of the characters onstage, by capitalising on the relationship of the actors,” he continues. “Rupa’s work is always conducive, these different voices and strengths of each member coming together, and translates well to the stage. I’m excited to bring it to life, both the realist and surreal portions, and bounce ideas off of each other. I really look forward to seeing it all come together.”
Both active in the Malay theatre scene, Raimi and Adib share how they hope the community learns to let go more, and allow themselves to explore, particularly with new collaborators, and of course, greater audience numbers in future. “I hope that there will be platforms for more offerings from Malay theatre companies, as it really increasing the variety and diversity and colourful theatre scene,” sas Raimi. “But I also hope that there’ll be an increasing web of support between all these Malay theatre companies. There’s always this danger of working in silos, and I hope that in future, we can reach out and collaborate more within the scene.”
“I think that different companies are at different stages of their development, and we need more platforms to support them at each stage,” says Adib. “I’ve been through the web across multiple companies, and it’s certainly enriched my own personal journey as a theatremaker. But one must also be willing and open to collaboration; we’re very comfortable working with our usual collaborators, and I think we need to remain open, and comfortable enough to take a leap of faith and try working with new people. Ultimately, this scene is one we all share, and we have to work together more to develop the industry, draw in more audiences, and perhaps, hone a new generation of Malay storytellers.”
In reflecting on the theme of The Helpers, beyond the play itself, Raimi and Adib consider the theatre industry, and how greater society can relate to it. “Melissa (General Manager of TNS and Executive Producer of the Fringe) said something that struck me – we are a small theatre scene hit by pandemic, and it’s all we can do is help and support along the way,” says Raimi. “What we can do is to push on, giving practitioners hope, and when they see it, similarly offer a sense of hope for the audience.”
“Even while going through your own difficulties, it’s possible to help others, and maybe helping them come to terms with their situation and process things, or even just acknowledging their struggles,” says Adib. “It’s really just about being there for each other in these tough times. And I think the M1 Fringe epitomises that, to have adapted and allowed the space for theatre companies and collectives and individuals to continue to tell stories, and champion this collective spirit of being there for each other in whatever way we can.”
Photo Credit: Back Alley Media
Rindu di Bulan plays from 19th to 22nd January 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. More information available here
The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers runs from 12th to 23rd January 2022. Tickets and full line-up available here