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Review: Foreign Bodies by Birds Migrant Theatre

Big-hearted, honest work about the plight of migrant workers in Singapore.

Far too often, migrant workers in Singapore are seen only as cheap expendable labour or worst of all, subjects of crime articles splashed over newspapers. This act of othering migrant workers constantly demeans their humanity, and reduces them to mere statistics. At what point do we begin to treat them with respect as equals, and acknowledge their lives in all their complexities, beyond their status as foreigners in a strange land?

In seeking to shed light on migrant workers, Birds Migrant Theatre comes together to put their humanity onstage, by presenting and dramatising frank stories of the migrant experience in Singapore. Co-directed by Serena Ho and Haresh Sharma, Birds Migrant Theatre thus makes their M1 Singapore Fringe Festival debut with Foreign Bodies.

Co-devised and written by Deni Apriyani, Sukempi Widya Hastuti, Wiwi Tri, Ak Zilani and Sugiarti Mustiarjo, Foreign Bodies follows migrant workers Arif (Ak Zilani) and Ani (Deni Apriyani) in Singapore, who begin a romantic relationship with each other. But when Ani finds out she’s pregnant, their simple state of bliss collapses, as the two of them are torn apart by individual obligations and state rules that threaten the future of their relationship.

True to the nature of fringe work, Foreign Bodies is a no frills, no set, pared down work that puts the focus on the script and performances. There is a refreshing honesty to the script that captures the creators’ lived experiences, a rawness to the written dialogue that feels as if it could have been plucked from the conversations between migrant workers on the street, from the way Arif and Ani flirt, to the way their companions dish out advice or chide them for their dalliance.

With that in mind, the performances from the cast feels real, speaking in their own voices that comes from a sincere place. This is a rare piece of theatre that doesn’t need to go too big, and instead depends on the degree of realism and simplicity in the acting to bring out the message that migrant workers too are three-dimensional characters with their own sets of flaws and passions. Lead actors Ak Zilani and Deni Apriyani are especially adept at this, with their onstage chemistry believable, and equal amounts of worry in their voice when they become aware of the predicament they’re in.

Both leads are also well-supported by the rest of their cast. While not everyone is given a full-fledged story, their presence helps expand the world of Foreign Bodies and showcase the range of personalities that migrant workers have beyond their job. Wiwi Tri excels as the caustic Ira hiding a heart of gold, a character you instantly recognise for always nagging yet there to help you at the end of the day. Sukempi Widya Hastuti plays an older, more laid back domestic worker who uses her wiles to generate a successful side hustle to support herself, while Rina Hakim as Ani’s Indonesian mother, shows multiple facets to her acting abilities through a series of what-if scenarios. The migrant actors are also joined by Singaporean performers Fahim Murshed, who plays a playboy type foreign worker, and Grace Kalai, who plays Ani’s employer Joanne. Joanne in particular is a rare instance of an employer presented in an almost completely positive light onstage, willing to do everything in her power to help Ani through this.

Towards its end, Foreign Bodies does have issues figuring out how to conclude, especially after a series of ‘will they/won’t they’ interactions, as we see Arif and Ani’s relationship crumble with an increasing number of revelations. Things get especially complicated once it is no longer clear what is truth and what is mere speculation, as the rest of the cast ponder over how the couple’s lives will move forward after physically separating. Eventually, the play decides to finish with a flashback, recounting how Ani and Arif met in the first place, recalling the initial love torn apart by their status as migrant workers, and the rules of engagement that decree they cannot start a family in Singapore, in turn restricting their ability to love the same as anyone else.

With a good cast giving their all onstage, an unflinching, objectively written story that speaks truth to the limitations of being a migrant in Singapore, and imaginative script that explores the pitfalls of love and family, Foreign Bodies was a rare, big-hearted, honest glimpse into migrant life, by migrant workers with a story to tell. What we are left with is a clear message: we can all afford to show more care and empathy to those around us, regardless of their background or what the state deems them.

Photo Credit: Birds Migrant Theatre

Foreign Bodies played on 15th January 2023 at the Esplanade Annexe Studio as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023.

The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023 ran from 4th to 15th January 2023 across various venues. More information available here

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