Below is a summary of Critics Live! for Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner by Checkpoint Theatre. This took place live at The Arts House on 24 May 2019. The panelists were: Dede Pramayoza (Indonesia), Helmi Yusof (Singapore), Hiroyuki Takahashi (Japan) and Pawit Mahasarinand (Thailand). The session was moderated by ArtsEquator’s co-founder, Kathy Rowland.
Kathy Rowland opened by introducing the critics on the panel, noting that they will share their most immediate post-show thoughts after Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner (DPWD) rather than thorough analyses.
Helmi Yusof commended the play’s ambition and rigour as a rare Singaporean work dealing with war and conflict. He enjoyed the play until the penultimate scene set at a party where the dialogue felt “artificial”, losing the rest of the play’s natural rhythm. He felt the play did not give closure to the fate of a major character, Mike, while other extraneous plot threads were tied. Quoting Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo: “Unhappy is the land that needs heroes”, he notes the “heroes” in this play are fallible beings capable of doing bad things.
Dede Pramayoza commended the direction, including lighting design and the surrealism of the music and movement. He was particularly moved at the scene in which the character Angela breaks down while praying over the phone with her parents.
Pawit Mahasarinand joked that DPWD is “the least Singaporean play [he has] watched,” explaining that DPWD has a universal appeal. It sheds crucial light on the lesser-represented stories of humanitarian aid workers. He felt DPWD’s surrealist elements did not work, as it diluted the dialogue which is crucial in a story rarely told in the media; he would have preferred naturalism.
Hiroyuki Takahashi remarked on the importance of sharing stories that haven’t happened in [the playwright’s] own country, to provoke the audience to consider these issues beyond what is depicted in the media.
Many in the audience, including an aid worker from Indonesia, felt the play refreshingly foregrounded the lives and power dynamics of international aid workers, albeit, as some opined, at the expense of the perspectives of local workers and refugees. Alfian Sa’at particularly critiqued the play’s decision to deal with “middle class angst” amid “undifferentiated brown bodies” of refugee figures made peripheral. Dede pointed out that DPWD is not ultimately about refugees at all, but people working in a transnational office, noting the possibility that what happened to the aid workers can also happen to the refugees.
Corrie Tan acknowledges the panel comprises only men, discussing a work that tackles sexual assault. She reads in the play a very personal tragedy embedded within a larger one: the humanitarian aid-worker character Sara is trapped, and held hostage within the bounds of the humanitarian organisation.
Sharmilla Ganesan shares her ambivalence about DPWD and surprise at Corrie’s and Helmi’s positive responses. She asks the critics how they review works outside of their own context or country, to which the critics respond that they try to be as informed as possible though understanding is never perfect.
Critics Live: Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner took place as part of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable 2019. Read more about AAMR here.
About the author(s)
Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.