By Richard Chung
(738 words, 7 minute read)
Jo Tan’s playwriting debut offers a simple yet familiar story of one Singaporean girl with big dreams. In Forked, Ethel Yap plays Jeanette, a young aspiring actor who heads to London for drama school. Upon arrival in London, Jeanette gets the biggest culture shock of her life when she’s sidelined as one of the ‘Asian’ kids. Determined to fit in, Jeanette tosses away any semblance of her Singaporean roots to put on a new ‘posh’ accent to fit in, discovering a boyfriend, some hard truths and even herself along the way.
Forked is filled with plenty of ideas, which will chime with any Singaporean who has studied overseas. From the clear parental expectations of the value of an overseas education, to the horror of being associated with stereotypical PRC (Peoples Republic Of China) nationals, to even working in a cafe to sustain one’s daily expenses. There’s plenty of juicy material that Jo Tan has mined to comedic effect. It’s neatly observed and relatable.
A typical Chinese Singaporean takes their privilege for granted on a daily basis, but when they find the role reversed as an Asian in a primarily Caucasian city, it leads to the many issues of race and identity that arise in this play.
Forked has two plot lines in particular that stand out. The first is the play’s concerns with racism and self-identity in a foreign land and the breaking away from these preconceived, arrogant notions. Jeanette gets herself a rich Greek boyfriend (who later turns out to be a Muslim Cypriot, played by Jamil Schulze), a strand that touches on issues of interracial relationships, anti-Muslim rhetoric and general racism so prevalent all around us. He becomes the target of racial slurs and accusations of being a ‘terrorist’ or ‘brownskin’.
The second plot line that emerges is the idea of stereotypes and the choice to play along or to resist them. Jeanette is pit against China national and fellow theatre student Yun Yun (Taiwanese Chang Tingwei, who milks the stereotype for all its worth) for a role in a potential BBC television series. When during an audition, Jeanette is asked to put on a Japanese accent, we’re reminded of the recent Ah Boys to Men uproar where an Indian Singaporean actor was asked to play up his Indian accent for comedy. Like him, Jeanette refuses to conform to the racial stereotype or play by their rules, losing the role and her shot at stardom in the process.
It suggests that these stereotypes that are so prevalent in our collective consciousness, shape our attitudes towards people of different communities and racial backgrounds, stopping us from seeing the real person underneath the distorting cliche.
The cast has to be commended for their ability to change so quickly from one role to another, and sharing strong onstage chemistry and energy that makes their performances so believable and enjoyable. This has to be credited to the director Chen Yingxuan who, despite the limitations of the black box setting and the production’s low budget, ensures a seamless evening. Even Jo Tan herself makes an appearance, showing off her ability to mimic accents for comedy as she plays both a heavily accented Japanese woman, and (in voiceover) an equally stereotypical French theatre teacher.
This is an ambitious script, and one that manages to cover plenty of ground and raise important issues that are brewing in our world today, but it would benefit the piece to be more concise and compact. Nonetheless, Forked‘s final message about the difficulty of staying true to one’s identity amidst the societal pressures of racism, both internal and external, comes through clearly.
In seeing what it’s like to be a minority in another country, audiences may better walk away from Forked with more compassion, empathy and understanding towards those minorities around them.
This review is based on the performance on 26 January 2018 at 8pm. Forked by Jo Tan ran from 25 to 27 January at the NAFA Studio Theatre as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
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.