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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

“Forked” by Jo Tan: Shapeshifting Identities

By Bernice Lee 

(722 words, 5-minute read)

Jo Tan’s first full-length play Forked hits plenty of right notes. High energy, uncomfortably honest and deliberately racist, it’s funny because it’s true. In spite of its great momentum however, the play’s pace feels weighed down by its thematic frames, just as the characters are stuck within their social constructs.

I love that Tan has written herself into this play, taking on two very different caricatures — one a legendary French drama teacher, the other a UK celebrity famous for being extremely “Japanese” — while basing the central character on her personal experience. Tan both appears, loud and proud, and disappears, into her own story. Perhaps this comes from a comedian’s sense of self-loathing, where the writer is unsure of how she represents herself. Perhaps this contributes to the incredible humour of the play. Because nothing is sacred and everything can be made fun of, there is release in the provocation. Yet this is not a sitcom, in which the most loathsome, stagnated characters are often the most loveable. This play needs its central character to grow in under two hours.

Jeanette Peh — Junior College valedictorian, minor YouTube star, aspiring actress — flees Singapore for drama school in London. She parachutes into a new environment, one in which she imagines she will feel at home. Played seamlessly by Ethel Yap, Jeanette discovers that her Queen’s English does not serve her so well in the Queen’s land. This land has transformed since the days of Empire, or perhaps was only ever a fantasy. Jeanette’s finely-articulated English comes with notions of respectability and order, whereas her new reality is not so clean-shaven.

Perhaps the most moving scenes are between Sophie (Joanna Pilgrim), a welfare-receiving single English mother, and Jeanette, who work as equals in a cafe but are never quite. They each recognise the other’s challenges, and almost empathise. Yet they never step beyond their race and class, or the gap between their accents. Sophie brandishes Brexit like a weapon, Jeanette, her crisp enunciations.

Forked highlights the acting chops of its cast. They each play multiple characters, except Yap’s Jeanette, who already shapeshifts remarkably on her own. “Neutral” American accent for her YouTube series, British accent while in London — her behaviour shifts in different contexts. Yun Yun, or Yum (Chang Ting Wei), takes shapeshifting to the extreme by behaving like a cute China doll. She thinks this will get her far in her career, aiming for stardom in England’s Equal Opportunities roles. Yum knows that she is doing this to get the fame she wants, whereas only at the end does Jeanette realise that she has been performing her whole life. When offered a role playing to ethnic stereotypes, Jeanette refuses. Yet this noble choice leads to an ironic adjustment for Jeanette: we see her later, no longer working at the hipster cafe, but as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, a role where her appearances match the supposed expectations. It is a subtle point about the collapse of false neutralities, and choices made in everyday performance.

Every character is devilish, two-faced, properly f*cked. The actors take this on supremely well, so that I see the problem of representation faced not only by the characters, but also the problem faced by the actors. Pilgrim plays every white girl, Jamil Schulze every man (always brown, except as Jeanette’s father at the beginning), Chang is always in a Sinicised role (Vietnamese, Shanghainese, Chinese Singaporean). They slip between characters without ever losing the sense that these are falsehoods and pretences, effectively adding to the comedy. Yet it feels like I should feel horrible for laughing too easily.

A play for our times, Forked uses stereotype to reveal how our world makes chameleons of all of us, chasing recognition and respectability, without ever looking at ourselves honestly. At the end when Jeanette begins a new monologue by stating her name, it is heartfelt yet sadly empty. Her personal story feels like it has disappeared inside a much larger construct, a much more fraught reality, perhaps in the same way Jo Tan has disappeared herself. It upsets me that I almost do not care about knowing who Jeanette really is, so good is she at fitting the mould. What I feel instead is a strong affinity to the actors, the real people carrying the play, who actively grapple with the representations of their bodies, the performances of their racialised roles. 


This review is based on the performance on 26 January 2018. Forked by Jo Tan runs from 25 – 27 January 2018 at NAFA Studio Theatre.

Bernice Lee is a dance artist whose love for language is in its kinetic, felt sense. She sees writing about performance as its own artistic medium, contributing her voice to building positions and perspectives over time. She creates and performs solos, creates works for others, and also deeply enjoys risk-taking collaboration, dealing with dance as embodied culture. She works with Faye Lim to develop Rolypoly Family, a contact-based dance and play practice, building bonds and forming partnerships across generations. She has performed and toured internationally for Frontier Danceland and Maya Dance Theatre. She is the current Artist-in-Residence at Dance Nucleus for ELEMENT Season 1. She began writing and publishing for FiveLines in 2017, and has had some writing published on ArtsEquator. Visit her website here.

This review was written as part of the Lyn Gardner Theatre Criticism Training Program, an initiative by the National Arts Council, managed by ArtsEquator.com.

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