Cakap-Cakap: Interview with Jo Kukathas for Air Con

We cakap-cakap (chit-chat) with Jo Kukathas about The Instant Café Theatre Company’s upcoming screening of Air Con, an award-winning 2008 play written by Shanon Shah. The play revolves around the murder of a sex worker near an elite boys school in Kedah and how it roils the school community. The play, which was directed by Jo alongside Zalfian Fuzi, picked up multiple awards at the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards in 2009 – Best Original Script, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Lighting Design and the Kakiseni Audience Choice Award. The play features the Malay, Northern Malay, English and Hokkien languages, and Malay, English and Mandarin surtitles will be provided.

AE: In whatever way you like, can you please introduce yourself in your own words?

I’m Jo Kukathas. I’m the Artistic Director of The Instant Café Theatre Company, Malaysia. We’ve been around since 1989. I have no idea how we’ve managed to do that.

AE: How are you doing at the moment? Could you describe your current state of mind?

Nervous. Anxious. Anticipatory. We’re opening a play I love to a new audience. It’s a screening, not a live play, but I have the same opening night anticipation. I want people to love it. I want them to be moved by it.

AE: What are some of the themes in Air Con that you resonate with?

Our human need for freedom. Our human need to find our own expression of ourselves. It is the concept of angin. If your angin is blocked, you become sakit as a person and as a society. Also about how vulnerable the young are. How easily we betray them. How easily we betray the most vulnerable members of our society, the LGBTQ+ community and the transgender community in particular. About religious policing and the damage it does to people and to society. Often it is done in the name of love and care but it’s a very twisted care which denies people their right to be themselves.

AE: Why is Air Con an important story to tell today? How do you think it will resonate with audiences?

Recently the Malaysian authorities launched a massive ASEAN-wide ‘manhunt’ for Nur Sajat, the transgender entrepreneur who had to go into hiding. They spent a massive amount of money and resources. The police and JAKIM, the religious authorities, worked together to look for her. This week she was tracked down and arrested in Thailand. I think we need to ask ourselves why we as a society feel it is imperative to do this. To discriminate and persecute those who are different, especially those who are differently gendered. Why do discriminatory colonial gender laws still exist and why is gender policing so strong still? I look at the rapidity with which the Taliban came back to power in Afghanistan and I think we need to think more seriously about what human rights mean. A strong society looks after its most vulnerable communities. Otherwise we leave the door wide open to toxic forces and barbarism.

We need to learn to be kinder. I think ordinary people feel this need intuitively too – I think of the kindness of the white flag movement and #kitajagakita – but we are constantly being forced into a cruel national narrative of exclusion and discrimination. I think we are getting fed up. Hasn’t the pandemic taught us the need for kindness?

  • Image courtesy of The Instant Café Theatre Company

AE: This play is set in Kedah, and features the Kedahan accent – how significant is this in the context of Malaysian theatre today, in your view?

I think it paints a more complex picture of Malaysia than the one that is often portrayed. It’s not just a Kedah accent, it’s a dialect. That makes it a cultural attitude. There are many dialects in Malaysia and Utara people and Selatan people and Borneo people have different dialects and cultures. But there is a kind of central language now being imposed and this comes with an imposition of cultural, religious and social norms. The Kedah dialect is earthy, often naughty, and the saying and proverbs are very earthy and naughty too. It points to a very independent-minded, direct way of thinking and talking. We think ‘national culture’ is important when in fact culture is bigger, and older, than nation. National culture is as artificial as a man-made lake and as exciting.

AE: Can you share any interesting anecdotes about the show in 2008?

Not so much an anecdote but the friendships and respect that developed in the rehearsal room. So many languages were in play. The play is in Kedah dialect, Malay, English and Hokkien. Myself and Zalfian Fuzi, my co-director, directed in English. The cast spoke to us mostly in Malay but some in English. The rest of the team spoke a variety of languages to each other. The cast had to learn Kedah Malay. Shanon Shah, the playwright, coached them. Also for the young cast it was the first time meeting someone from the transgender community, let alone working with them, and to witness the respect, friendship and love is something I won’t forget. Dara Othman (who plays Aishwarya Roberts) quietly taught us all a great deal.

AE: There was a cast reunion on Facebook on 11 September (full video here or highlights here). Can you describe what that was like and what it added to the experience?

It was emotional and funny! The cast slipped back into their characters as if they had rehearsed only yesterday. It made me wish we did a reading of the full play. The cast pointed out that they will be watching the play for the first time on Friday night! So they are full of nervous anticipation too.

AE: What is a question you’ve been asking yourself recently?

Where do I want to go from here? What do I really want to do?

AE: Who is a Malaysian artist or creative who you think deserves more attention, and why?

Ridhwan Saidi. I know he already gets a lot of attention, but I think he deserves more.

AE: Complete this sentence: 2021 is a year of…

…reflection, being in the garden, learning from it.

Catch Air Con by Instant Café Theatre online on Cloud Theatre from 24 to 26 September 2021 at various timings. Advisory: Ages 16 and up 

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

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