What does it mean to be a Singaporean Malay man? Is it having gone through National Service? Is it simply by virtue of being brown? Or could it be the quintessential rite of passage for Muslim males – circumcision?
Those are key questions that will be addressed and more in Johnny Jon Jon’s play Potong, which receives a new staging next week as part of the 2023 Esplanade’s Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts. Directed by Mohd Fared Jainal, Potong follows Adam, an Australian-born Singaporean who has returned to Singapore to complete National Service. In the process, his distant mother Siti tries to get him to rekindle the ties she severed a long time ago, while aided by an uncle and grandmother who are not quite what they seem, and an out of sorts ‘maker of men’ doctor. Perhaps this will finally make him a man.
Originally staged in 2018, besides Farah Ong reprising her role, this new version of Potong features an entirely new cast, including performers Aisyah Aziz, Irsyad Dawood, and Jada. Prior to its new staging, we spoke to director Mohd Fared Jainal on the conversations Potong hopes to start, what it means to be a Malay-Muslim man today, and presenting the show as part of Pesta Raya.
“We’ve been looking for an opportunity to restage Potong for some time now, and with this opportunity presented by the Esplanade, we leapt at the chance,” says Fared. “This is especially important in the current climate, with increased conversations surrounding issues of identity and care, while Johnny Jon Jon has also unpacked and rewritten certain parts of the script, all of which we wanted to share with audiences.”
The original 2018 version of Potong was staged at the Malay Heritage Centre auditorium, and with the new venue and time going by, both script and staging are set to be quite different. “With a bigger space, we have to consider more aspects and fill it up. Now, we’re also turning the focus beyond dementia affecting someone, but also the people around them,” says Fared. “My own dad suffered from dementia for a couple of years, and watching my mum take care of him, she really went through a lot. Far too often, we find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with caregiving.”
“The idea of identity too has been expanded on, especially with the cast,” adds Fared, who was in the original 2018 staging as Adam’s uncle. “We really wanted to have an authentic, trans person onstage, to open up conversations about trans people in the Malay-Muslim community and question our perceptions. And she’s also not onstage just because she’s trans, but as a character, she’s very complex and helps drive the story forward. We added scenes where characters would have a greater stake, and while it’s been quite challenging during the workshopping and rehearsal process, we’re confident that it will hit the places it needs to.”
This certainly isn’t the first time Teater Ekamatra has put queer people onstage and highlighted queer issues, having worked with Azizul Mahathir (aka Vanda Miss Joaquim) in shows like Bangsawan Gemala Malam or Make Hantus Great Again. Fared firmly believes the community is ready to talk about such issues, and bring them out of their former taboo status. “As cautious as they are, people are interested in talking about such issues, and I think that we’re presenting this community with the utmost respect,” says Fared. “It’s not about sensationalising or promoting anything specific, but to showcase a day in the life, that will hopefully open up people’s views and perspectives, in order to get rid of certain stereotypes, and show how it all comes back to family values. The way Johnny Jon Jon has written this, you fully believe in the story and character, and you want to believe in caring for her first and foremost as a fellow family member.”
Beyond trans and Malay issues, Potong also deals with universal concepts of identity and rites of passage, inviting even non Malay-Muslim audience members to come watch the show. “What we are doing is to present these issues in a Malay-Muslim context, and that to me, is an important starting point,” says Fared. “For our community, everything starts from home and the family, and that is what determines a lot of our values and the way we do things. We then question what values we want to hold on to, and pass down to the next generation.”
“Is there resistance to change? Yes and no. I find that I still hold on quite dearly to some things that were passed down to me. I’m not getting any younger, but I do try to understand where the young people are coming from in their thoughts and feelings towards certain traditions and practices, like circumcision,” says Fared. “Some of us do have our own beliefs when it comes to circumcision, like how I would prefer my son to get circumcised at a certain age instead of birth, because that would then let him access the feeling of fear, and then overcoming those feelings with the support of family. There will always be generational differences, but what’s important is that whatever belief system you hold, you have a sense of ownership and purpose to it, as long as you’re not doing harm to anyone through your practice.”
What Fared is also happy about is simply that people are now more willing to question and have dialogues over potentially obsolete practices and beliefs, all of which help form and strengthen one’s own identity. “Some families still like to pass down old wives’ tales, like how if you open an umbrella in the house snakes might come, and the act of questioning helps to strengthen either your own beliefs, or clarifies your doubts to ensure you’re not just blindly following for the sake of it,” says Fared. “If you fully understand why certain practices are done, then you can ascribe cultural value to it even if you don’t practice them.”
So what exactly does it mean to be a Singaporean Malay then? “It’s a lot of things, and that’s why it’s not an easy question to answer. Is it because of the language you speak? If you’re worse at the language, does that make you less Malay? I think the Malay identity is not fixed, and it changes with time and situations and culture,” says Fared. “Perhaps part of it comes from a sense of identity born from knowing your own heritage, which creates a deep rootedness within. and going with something more relevant. All that helps you understand yourself and where you come from better, whether geographically, politically or historically.”
“Maybe that also extends to Ekamatra’s identity as an ethnic minority theatre company. I think as a company, we recognise that there is a diversity to the Malay-Muslim identity in Singapore, and through our work, we need to represent that openness, and reach out to as many people out there as possible, continually engaging with different topics and issues within the Malay community,” continues Fared. “Where we add value to the scene is the way we view things versus the way the majority might view it, and to voice those views out. One of the core principles we hold on to is that Ekamatra is a home for everyone, and that’s why we try to keep reaching out to new partners and individuals within our community, whether it’s working with NUS Malay Studies, and simply looking towards expanding our influence and audiences.”
And if the aim is to expand their influence, then why doesn’t Malay theatre hit bigger stages more often? “Bangsawan Gemala Malam was actually the first time we did a work in Victoria Theatre, and I think it’s because we’re mostly comfortable existing in a black box space. And I think partially, it’s because Malay theatre tends to represent the community spirit, and the black box perfectly encapsulates that intimacy and closeness. That to me is the essence of Ekamatra,” says Fared. “That being said, even in larger spaces, there is still a desire to rally the community, and fully embrace the presence of the audience. The size itself isn’t so much what matters, so much as having inclusivity and ownership over whatever you present, and wanting to do it in the most meaningful way to the audience, and really make them feel like a part of the show.”
Photo Credit: A. Syadiq
Potong runs from 18th to 21st May 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, as part of the Esplanade’s Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts. Tickets and more information available here
Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts runs from 18th to 21st May 2023 at the Esplanade. Tickets and full programme available here
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