By Azura Farid and Nabilah Said
The pandemic led theatre collective HATCH to dream up Keturunan Ruminah (Ruminah’s Family), a play that takes place entirely on WhatsApp. Rightly, HATCH identified the potential of the WhatsApp group chat to be a site of potent family drama, this one centred on ghostly possession, complete with videos of possible supernatural elements, and audio voice notes sent by bossy aunties and gifs by freaked out cousins. The play follows an exchange amongst an extended family where we learn through a young man, Adi, that his mother, Habsah, who recently left the family group chat, has been acting strange. Drama ensues as his relatives step in with various explanations, questions and requests.
Azura Farid and Nabilah Said have a conversation (alas, via Google Documents) about the themes of the show, including black magic and possible tech-savvy ghosts, and the use of WhatsApp as a medium for storytelling.
[The exchange below has been lightly edited and condensed.]
Azura: I’m very curious about what it means to perform a WhatsApp play in real-time. I was wondering if the actors were typing out the messages from a script in real-time? And what does “performance” mean in this context?
Nabilah: It’s interesting that you used the word “actors”! I was thinking about it too, how many people are “performing” as these 7 characters? I started seeing them as “cut and pasters”, like it was more technical than it was embodied.
Azura: I didn’t even consider the possibility that there might have been less than 7 people! I did wonder if it was a matter of cut-and-paste or retyping messages in real-time to keep the pacing somewhat realistic – if everything was cut and paste, some of the messages would feel like they came through too quickly. Did you notice the pacing?
Nabilah: I thought the pacing was too slow! I kept waiting for the next message, and when it took slightly too long, I would start checking my phone. It’s interesting, this line between authenticity and sustaining your audience’s attention.
Azura: I started to notice the pacing when people started freaking out and messages started to come more quickly, which I enjoyed because it felt realistic. I noticed the pacing again towards the end when people were busy handling things ‘in the real world’ because the messages really slowed down, which felt like watching a conventional show and knowing things are happening ‘offstage’.
Nabilah: Related to that, Azura, how are you with horror?
Azura: I wouldn’t say I particularly seek out horror stuff to read/watch, and I definitely don’t do horror movies, but I feel like I’m more able to handle written horror. So watching the videos from this show was scary enough for me! What about you?
Nabilah: The videos were SO scary. But the best part was, they didn’t need jump scares! I think a large part of it had to do with the fact that the show was dealing with Asian horror, or Malay horror maybe? The idea of possession, of your mother becoming like a stranger or this scary presence in your own home. And I think that has enough of a psychological effect.
Azura: Yes! I thought the videos and audio were so effective.
When they were talking about taking the mother to a doctor/IMH I was wondering why it took so long for someone to suggest a bomoh haha. And then eventually someone said something about black magic and that’s when things really got going.
Nabilah: Agreed! For me, it started becoming really interesting when they mentioned the “saka” (djinn or spirit that is passed down in a family) that the Nenek had. And oh gosh, when the aunt mentioned that it was a “buaya” (crocodile)? And weirdly, her religious leader friend could “see” the crocodile in the video? She used the word “teropong” (binoculars) which was so interesting to me. Binoculars = third eye.
Azura: As soon as they mentioned “saka” I was about to Google it, and then immediately one of the characters, Zack, asked what it was, which was nice because I had assumed it was a word I should already know. Were you familiar with this stuff beforehand?
Nabilah: I wouldn’t say that I’m a black magic hobbyist or anything. Hahah. I know the basic stuff. Do you know @asonofapeach on Instagram?
Azura: I don’t have Instagram haha but I’m looking that up now!
Nabilah: (Wow, no Instagram, I have questions.) @asonofapeach is the Instagram account of one of the writers of this show, Hafidz Rahman. He’s been running these Q&As where he and his followers would share ghost stories. That’s how I learnt about “saka”.
Azura: What I did see was a preview on the show’s Peatix page which hinted that “something is not right with Mama”.
I was totally invested when the “buaya” was mentioned in the show. And that also makes me think about how doing a WhatsApp play lets you mention all kinds of stuff without having to show it, like a radio play I guess? A lot can unfold in our imagination based just on text.
Nabilah: The soundscape really helped. Like that nosy auntie, Aunty Rozita’s voice notes – the sense of urgency in her voice, the fact that she kept sending messages – were really effective in heightening the tension and stakes.
Azura: It was also very appropriate for her character. There was a moment when she tells Adi to take everything yellow out of the house, and then 10 seconds later she asks him, “hello you do already???”.
Nabilah: On one level, she’s just so extra, but it really supported the storytelling of the show.
Nabilah: I’m thinking about entrypoints, the fact that having things explained to Zack (who is a literal angel – his wife Rozita kept asking him to butt out because it was her “family’s issue” but in the end, he was the only one who had the initiative to go to Adi’s house to see what was happening) helped people who may not be as familiar with some bits of cultural knowledge to understand what was going on. It was really clever to have Zack as a stand-in for the audience in that sense.
Azura: I don’t think I picked up on the fact that Zack wasn’t Malay! Oops.
Nabilah: I think it was the way people were speaking to him, in a way you would to an outsider? And it was always in English. But I may be wrong.
Azura: It occurred to me that because this was a WhatsApp play, non-Malay-speaking audience members could Google Translate the Malay dialogue if they wanted. I do think if I didn’t speak Malay, I would’ve missed out on a lot.
Nabilah: True. Cultural nuances are really hard to translate.
Like when Rozita mentioned her friend, Habib, who possibly was a spiritual leader of unconventional persuasion, and the rest of the family was like, “who is this Habib, is he ARS-certified?”. It was highly relevant because of recent news about self-styled spiritual leaders in the Malay community.
Azura: There was also a nice exchange when one of the uncles, Jeffrey said “I’ll get water from the mosque” and Rozita said “no, I know someone else whose water is better”, which felt like a very succinct illustration of people’s relationships as well as their beliefs.
Nabilah: And the whole mental health-possession duality is such a Malay thing, I think? The idea that if one’s spirit is weak, then they are more susceptible to being possessed by a spirit.
Also, wasn’t there a reveal that Rozita was meant to receive the “saka” but for some reason she turned it down, and now it was disturbing her sister, Cik Habsah?
Azura: Yes, and then the religious uncle, M Nasir sent this video in the chat and said it was “good for black magic”.
Maybe it was also partly a generational thing, where Adi is younger and is more inclined to assume it’s a mental health issue. And I think people were still talking about “ok we’ll take her to IMH tomorrow”, even after a lot of discussion about the spiritual side of things. That’s interesting, this duality of believing multiple things at the same time.
Nabilah: Oh yes, great point.
Actually, one of the earliest bits that was truly horrific in a non-spiritual way was when it was accidentally revealed that Adi and his mom were left out of a family picnic. It very quickly introduced us to their family dynamics, and introduced conflict. Family drama – that’s true horror!
Azura: I thought the early conversations about lower-stakes things were very effective in establishing characters and relationships without being too exposition-y. Also different characters’ texting styles gave us a good idea of what each person was like right from the beginning!
It somehow also feels more voyeuristic reading another family’s group chat, than if we were watching them onstage having this conversation in a kitchen or something.
Nabilah: What did you think about the ending? I particularly want to talk about the fact that the spirit can possess people through technology!! My mind was blown by the thought, though I found the ending too abrupt. I was quite invested up till that point.
Azura: I found the ending abrupt as well! We got that creepy voice note from M Nasir with “aku lah… Habsah” (“It’s me…. Habsah”) and then the post-show announcement came up. I actually didn’t pick up on people being possessed through technology (oops), who was meant to be talking at the end?
Nabilah: It was definitely not very clear. The voice note was sent from M Nasir’s phone, so to me, he (or his phone?) was being controlled by the spirit. I don’t know if that makes sense – if the company’s intention was to suggest that ghosts can do that now. M Nasir also forwarded a video of Cik Habsah, and I remembered thinking, wait, the spirit can forward messages? What is this high-tech possession going on?
Azura: I was wondering who originally took the video and sent it to M Nasir for him to forward, and how did that person get to Adi/Cik Habsah’s house so quickly? It didn’t occur to me that the spirit could be controlling him instead.
Nabilah: Rozita wrote “this one is forwarded from habib!!! The spirit kacau him already!!”, after sending a voice note of the spirit talking. For me that’s when the spirit became an additional character, and we see it jumping from the Habib, to M. Nasir, which is when it ended. Does that make sense?
Azura: Ah yes, I remember her forwarding that voice note. I guess at the time I understood it as being from a completely different spirit, I’m not sure why! That makes more sense.
Nabilah: There are no rules when it comes to possession! Haha. Any final thoughts?
Azura: I noticed in the publicity image that one of the aunties (presumably Rozita) is called Obek Ita. I guess it means the family is supposed to be Bawean. Maybe that’s more of a side note. Overall I thought it was really fascinating how they managed to pack so much cultural and interpersonal nuance into a 40ish-minute show, where all we have to go off on are people’s messages and the occasional video/audio. I thought they used all the different aspects of the WhatsApp medium really well and I’m definitely curious to see if this is a direction more theatre companies will go in.
Nabilah: Agreed that the medium was used well and in surprising ways. The ghost element really tied it together. I am starting to consider that maybe Zack could be Malay but just not familiar with these kinds of things. Especially since you brought up the fact that the main family is Baweanese, that stereotype people have about the Baweanese community and black magic. On another note, I was revisiting the title of the show/chat group, Keturunan Ruminah, and how the word “keturunan” is lineage and the literal passing down of something. That was really embodied in this story. It was a really enjoyable show and well-considered.
Keturunan Ruminah: A WhatsApp Play by HATCH ran on 6 March 2021.
Azura Farid is an arts administrator and practitioner with a background in theatre and music. Previous collaborations include The Opera People, Chowk Productions, Singapore Lyric Opera, Hampstead Garden Opera and Bloomsbury Studio. Azura is a graduate of King’s College London’s Music/Liberal Arts course and Wild Rice’s Young & Wild actor training programme.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.