By Akanksha Raja
(830 words, four minute read)
Before entering the performance space on the first floor lobby of The Whiteaways Arcade where 7Voices 2.0 takes place, my friend Denise and I are approached by two young “inspectors” demanding documentary proof that we were children. After I display on my phone an old photograph of myself in kindergarten, I am questioned on further details of my childhood: nicknames, favourite cartoons, favourite artists, and why. My young questioner barely stifles a grin at the incredulity of the questioning, and I smile back. This little pre-show sketch makes for a simple analogy to the perplexing and often absurd bureaucracy of border control: only after I provide satisfactory answers evidencing my experience of childhood am I given permission to enter the performance space. Denise, unfortunately, doesn’t “pass” the round of questioning, is labelled a “detainee” and taken away.
7Voices 2.0 is an updated version of an earlier presentation, 7Voices, staged in Kuala Lumpur in 2017, by the 24-strong group of young people aged eight to 18 from Yayasan Chow Kit, a non-profit organisation catering to the needs of youth in the vicinity of inner city Chow Kit, KL. It aims to provide a safe, supportive space to empower young people from diverse backgrounds with positive opportunities to learn, play and develop their potential. While the previous performance dealt with and drew closely from real-life stories of child abuse, the stories in 7Voices 2.0 additionally broach another tender and sensitive theme – transnational displacement and the refugee experience.
The performance opens with half of the ensemble on a boat, together with the “detainees” from the audience, all struggling to stay afloat on stormy seas with their luggage intact. After arriving on the shores of “Malaysia” – and the spectator “detainees” are released to their seats – the characters introduce themselves and their stories, followed by short sketches illustrating some of the social discrimination and financial struggles faced by refugees. Playful caricatures of snooty, wealthy locals with exaggerated European accents punctuate these scenes with easy humour to highlight the socioeconomic and cultural inequalities between refugees and more privileged residents.
While the performers embody their characters commendably, I’m not sure that the two distinct strands of themes – that of child abuse, and that of the transnational refugee experience – blended with each other cohesively within the production. The pre-show interrogation of us and prologue that brought the ‘detainees’ in to the space, articulate well the issues of displacement, discrimination and the marginalisation of refugees. The story that follows is about a group of seven young people from troubled family lives or abusive backgrounds who find solace in a singing tree, and with each other, in Chow Kit. Both plotlines are well-executed, and in different ways they both carry the weight of trauma, injustice, marginalisation and loneliness, but the production did feel like two different playlets.
The performance is a melange of music, dance and drama devised and produced by the youth themselves, with support and guidance from Dramalab, and under the direction of Dramalab co-founder Dato’ Zahim Albakri. This production comes at the end of a year full of workshops through which the experienced practitioners in the production crew mentored the performers in all aspects of theatre-making, including scriptwriting, design, choreography, stage management and front-of-house – skills that would likely find use in future creative projects. While the young performers are not formally trained in theatre, they were encouraged and given freedom to make their own creative decisions, and it was clear to see them taking ownership of the various performance modes with self-assurance, not merely because they were instructed to. In the composition process, co-musical director and vocal coach Vince Chong would give the performers one line around which the performers would build lyrics and structure. To watch the different talents of the group coming together for that final song – for example, Ardian/“Azim” with his guitar, and Juhan with rapping – made for a charming and endearing end to a thoughtful youth production. What particularly stayed with me was the use of shadow-play in flashback scenes depicting some of the traumatic backstories of a few of the characters – for example, a delicate recount of (implied) sexual abuse avoids depiction of the assault itself, but the chilling reality of the experience resonates in the way the shadow of a hand grows steadily, uncomfortably larger and larger.
Despite the heft of these complex issues that even most adults struggle to grasp, the young performance-makers carry it as best as they can with a buoyant energy and commendable sense of camaraderie. In the post-show dialogue as well as online interviews they share about how they strive to do justice to the real-life protagonists of their stories and the intricacy of the issues which point to a sensitivity and sense of compassion that is essential in any performance-maker, especially one working with social issues. I look forward to more initiatives that empower youth to tell stories through and art and performance drawn from lived experiences, and the potential it has to reach wider audiences.
7Voices 2.0 by Yayasan Chow Kit and Dramalab took place at the Whiteaways Arcade on 31 August and 1 September as part of the George Town Festival 2018.