Myle Yan Tay’s professional debut is a sublime exploration of male friendship and the minority experience.
|Category||Score (out of 10)|
|Direction (Huzir Sulaiman)||10|
|Script (Myle Yan Tay)||10|
|Performance (Gosteloa Spancer, Krish Natarajan, Ebi Shankara, Adib Kosnan, Shahid Nasheer)||10|
|Set Design (Petrina Dawn Tan)||9|
|Lighting Design (Petrina Dawn Tan)||8|
|Sound Design (Shah Tahir)||8|
|Costume/Hair and Makeup (Huzir Sulaiman/Norehan Fong-Harun)||9|
Frank and honest discussions about race are always hard. Rarely are minorities given a chance to speak freely about their position in the greater scheme of things, often with their words instead mired in identity politics and accusations of stirring the pot.
In their latest production, Checkpoint Theatre opens up this difficult conversation by putting the focus entirely on those who’ve experienced racism, with the premiere of Myle Yan Tay’s Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes. Directed by Huzir Sulaiman, Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes takes place on cooling off day, the eve of an election, as a group of old friends reunite to catch up on life. But as the drinks flow, skeletons in the closet come to light, and it quickly becomes clear that there is more to this innocent get-together than meets the eye, as old wounds re-open, and the strength of their bonds is put to the ultimate test.
Since his schooling days at Yale-NUS, Myle Yan Tay has shown promise and potential as a playwright, never shying away from sensitive topics such as in his play Master Race. While those school productions required some refining, Checkpoint has now provided the perfect opportunity to unlock his full potential, with dramaturg and mentor Huzir Sulaiman helping hone and sharpen his writing to a fine point. This has resulted in Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes being one of the best original scripts that Singapore has seen in recent years, with Yan’s first professional play already feeling like the work of a seasoned writer.
Right from the beginning, Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes already harnesses its naturalistic approach and dives into realism, with believable conversations and banter. Starting off innocently enough as a gathering of old friends, Yan very quickly establishes clear personalities that makes each character unique, layering each one with nuance. While it’s easy to judge them as simple characters at first, Yan reveals ever-increasing details of their backstory as the play goes on, such that you fully understand exactly how each one came to be the way they are by its end.
The cast chemistry is on point, and there is the constant sense of awkwardness at not having seen each other in years, a tension brewing underneath as they attempt to figure out how much each other has changed. The first to arrive is Scott (Ebi Shankara), a therapist married to a Caucasian woman, back for a visit from the USA. Seemingly always calm, there is a heavy darkness that shadows his every move, making complete sense once all is revealed, thanks to a few drinks and jetlag. Possibly the most sympathetic of the cast, Ebi makes this soft-spoken character a surprising force to be reckoned with, dropping truth bombs and tragedy when we least expect it. Arriving after him is Fizzy, played by Adib Kosnan, who runs a politically-inclined news site and social media channel. Always ready with a whipsmart, dangerously inappropriate comeback, Fizzy’s actions seem like a counter to years of childhood teasing. Often, his sharp-tongued humour even goes so far as to hurt others, perhaps lashing out as a way to protect himself, all delivered with perfect timing by Adib.
Meanwhile, Shahid Nasheer plays Adam, an academic dressed in batik who’s lost his firebrand attitude of his youth, and happens to be a victim of one of Fizzy’s wild speculations. Both Fizzy and Adam are gay characters, but neither are defined by their sexuality, and instead, are well-written individuals with distinct goals and opinions, clearly differentiated by their personalities and interactions. And perhaps loudest of all is Dev (Krish Natarajan), an up-and-coming rapper with a faux accent, obnoxious voice, and dressed in an equally glaring purple tracksuit. Despite initially seeming like a caricature, Dev eventually gets enough character development such that we understand the fragility of his position as a brown rapper, and how little he is in control of anything and everything he does, to the point of self-censorship.
All four gather at Tesh’s house (Gosteloa Spancer), a prominent opposition candidate who’s primed to win in the upcoming elections. As Tesh, Gosteloa’s voice is deep, clear and hints at a well-educated background, making sure to think before speaking every word, enunciated to perfection. Dressed in a crisp white top and business pants, it feels as if each sentence he utters is about to become a grand speech, carrying himself with an air of importance and already seeing himself as a member-of-parliament. Which is why the eventual disclosure of why he’s gathered them becomes all the more shocking, almost entirely contrary to the carefully-constructed public persona he puts on for everyone.
That same reason is the true turning point of the play, and what is initially simply an awkward reunion instead escalates into something much more, opening old wounds and cans of worms that force each of them to confront their personal demons and hang-ups. While Yan’s script is the highlight, director Huzir also leads the cast to play off each other incredibly well, with the energy and chemistry in the room is always on point. There is never complete ease, with the threat of a conflict always brewing – even when the friends wind up bonding over singing an (incredibly catchy) original song they once performed together. Yan’s writing ensures that peace never lasts for long, and with five very different, strong personalities in the room, there will always be someone who finds fault or clashes with another, as the past gets dredged up.
Even in the design elements, something always feels amiss or slightly off, with the way Petrina Dawn Tan’s set, representing Tesh’s extravagant home, is filled with oriental art and artefacts. From from Chinese-style paintings and cabinets, to porcelain vases and birds of paradise plants, there is almost no hint of Tesh’s Indian heritage, as if he is rejecting that side of his ancestry (out of internalised shame or out of necessity for his political career). Therein lies the central issue that characterises the entire play – that these men have no choice over the colour of their skin, and are thus subject to all the prejudice and discrimination it comes with, no matter how subtle, no matter how much one dissociates themselves from it. Huzir’s choice of costumes for the men are also distinct, reflective of their differing personalities, and sure to create a rift from their differences in experiences and opinions.
The issue of race is further complicated by the suspicion the men have of each other, unable to fully trust each other’s intentions and how many secrets are left unsaid. Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes becomes an exercise in exploring the difficulty of male friendship, and how hard it can be for men to bare their souls to each other. Each of these men are almost always holding tension somewhere in their body, represented either more obviously in their face, or in a stiffness and stress in their movements. There is so much unspoken pain buried under the surface, and a clear sense of discomfort watching them sit together, unpacking and excavating the trauma of their past.
As the men argue and sit in their discomfort, more and more facets to their stories unveiled, the audience ourselves viscerally feel their burden and pain, the sheer weight of being a minority and all the restriction it comes with almost too much to bear. As a writer, Yan juggles all these complex issues with aplomb, skilfully weaving them all together in a single script, and even as a non-minority watching the play, you fully understand and feel for the impossible weight and history of living as a brown man in a Chinese majority country, where a single misstep could dash one’s dreams forever. Brown boys are perfectly capable of telling a great joke, but whether they should, is another matter altogether.
Punctuated by razor-sharp wit, punching hard with harrowing yet necessary truths, and dealing with a multitude of issues in a taut, deftly crafted work, Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes is a force of nature that that grapples with loyalty and solidarity put to the test, and lays bare the complications of masculinity and male friendships in an intelligent and accurate way. There is a boldness and unabashed force to Yan’s writing that dares to cut deep and bring to light such sensitive issues with raw truth and brutal honesty, buoyed by spectacular performances from the entire cast, who feel like naturals in their roles.
The toughest part of Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes is the simple fact that a single success, be it as a politician or a rapper, will not change anything about the overall reality of race, and that this issue of being judged harder than the Chinese, falling prey to easy stereotypes, and needing to live as a model minority lest they ‘shame’ the race, is the status quo that will remain for generations to come. It is a hard truth that requires a complete overhaul in attitudes and systemic change, unable to emerge as an individual without being judged on account of one’s race, and as a result, requires more solidarity, more understanding, and more open-mindedness to tame the public with. Rarely does one so feel so affected at the end of a play, one that marks a high point for local writing that promises great things for Yan’s future as a playwright.
Photo Credit: Joe Nair
Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes played from 23rd March to 2nd April 2023 at the Drama Centre Black Box.
Checkpoint Theatre’s next play, Tender Submission, runs from 17th to 27th August 2023, with more information available here
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