By Aparna Nambiar
(1440 words, six-minute read)
“How has colonialism affected you?” This question flashes upon the giant screens that span the studio walls of The Esplanade Theatre Studio. Miss British, directed by Felipe Cervera and devised by The Art of Strangers staged between April 4th and 7th 2019, offers this answer: colonial attitudes make us both victims and perpetrators of prejudice.
This is a significant claim given Singapore’s particular manifestation of hierarchical multiculturalism, with its distinct, racial overtones. Colonial attitudes have so effectively primed Singapore’s social ground that the particularities of skin colour, hair texture and body size are read not just as physical difference, but as a kind of social deviance. I had the opportunity to view an open rehearsal of this work about a week prior to watching the final showing on Sunday, 7th April. In both iterations, Riduan Zalani’s atmospheric soundscape, Loo Zihan’s intimate video portraits and Chloe Chotrani’s languid choreography foster a sense of kinship with the talented women-of-colour performers on stage and their intensely interesting histories.
However, Miss British fails to adequately address the depth and complexity of the question it has posed about our shared postcolonial experience, surfacing instead only a litany of accusations.
Performers Grace Kalaiselvi, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai and Sharon Frese evoke the stinging sense of humiliation that comes from being misrecognised as merely a (different looking) body. Early in the piece, Frese establishes attitudes toward natural African hair as a metonym for internalised racial anxiety. Dorai’s character arc in Miss British follows that of a young woman negotiating power as refracted through interracial desire. She describes the daily, tortuous ritual of evaluating her own social position in Singapore against a racial ladder: expatriate white men and women on top, followed by Chinese, Malay and Indian people, in that order. Her racial anxiety and frustration are resolved when she recognises that the same Chinese boys who teased her appearance in school grew up to be “men who knew better.” In the final movement of the performance, Dorai ecstatically reclaims her agency by dismantling the ladder in her head; self-acceptance is the antidote to media-disseminated colonial beauty standards, she declares. This resolution feels simplistic; within racialised power hierarchies, revulsion and desire dovetail each other.
Grace Kalaiselvi, who delivers a mature and measured performance, offers an alternate and moving resolution. She describes how her mother, an Indian immigrant to Singapore, battled depression for years until she acquires the hobby of solving elaborate jigsaw puzzles. This act, of creating coherence from dismantled paper fragments, profoundly renews her exhausted spirit. Somewhere in this story, there is a clue to the cure for postcolonial melancholia — to that persistent feeling that all our best actions and intentions are futile in the face of political power. Miss British attempts to reveal “colonialism” as the primordial face of that power, and offers to absolve our postcolonial abjection with this revelation. Yet the pieces don’t really fit.
The set, designed by Chan Silei, dismantles the traditional proscenium stage of the Esplanade Theatre Studio to create an open square. This is flanked by slightly raised platforms for the audience. The set signals a level playing field between audience and performer, though the enormous projection screens tower over everyone. The set also has moving, stair-like floor elements — to underscore ethnic power hierarchies as a snakes and ladders game. There are cameras at different points that cast close-up footage of the performers from multiple angles onto screens that stretch from ceiling to floor.
Within the cosy space of the Theatre Studio, this feels excessive. Yet Loo Zihan, who has devised this multimedia set up, seems to be making a point; the lens’ gaze trains the audience to break away from the colonial gaze that has taught us to look upon dark skin on women in a certain way. The performers share anecdotes of this imposed gaze, which distorts their self-perception — white men who eroticise brown women, Chinese high-school boys who ostracise brown girls for fear that dark skin colour would rub off on them, and Indian mothers who pester their daughters to get married to men who value them only for their appearance. Loo humanises the performers with these carefully crafted video-diaries; unfortunately the screen size effectively shrinks their live presence on the stage.
Much of the production offers scenes and narratives of subjection from the colonial past and the post colonial present. It is designed as a series of confessional soliloquies of the performers’ personal histories as dark-skinned, minority women in Singapore and Germany. These are interspersed with repeated reenactments of (white-colonial) master— (non-european) slave scenes, which ominously gesture toward the different kinds of violence endured by black and brown-skinned female bodies. Whether these scenes are imagined, drawn from life, or from text is not clear. The spectre of the colonial master also lingers in several 21st century figures — as white men who inappropriately proposition brown women, as hostile European immigration officers, as unreasonable Australian policemen who are unable to distinguish between shades of brown, as the lighter-skinned elder Tamil sister who spitefully suggests that it is only natural that in the land of elephants, her plump older sister gets all the favourable male attention.
These reiterations draw the thread between colonialism and internalised white beauty standards — between acts of extreme brutality in the slave plantation to the kinds of casual and cutting verbal scorn that the performers have experienced in their own lives. The show attempts to connect all of these difficult scenes to reveal colonialism as the progenitor of contemporary cultural-political issues. Racialised power hierarchies, hurtful inter-personal experiences, unfair competition, sticky stereotypes — all of these, Miss British suggests, are the debris of past colonial power in play, still scattered about in our present like the litter from a forgotten roadside picnic.
The work lends credibility to this claim by interspersing the confessional sections of the production with the powerful yet misplaced words of Audrey Lorde, Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Walter Mignolo. Those authors are discussing the Black Atlantic slave trade, settler-colonialism and the genocides of First-Nation indigenes.
It is, therefore, a dubious sleight of hand to equate ‘New World’ histories with the related but distinct histories of indentured labour that circulated of the Indo-Pacific. It is now common for the afore mentioned authors to be appropriated for minority issues in widely different contexts worldwide. Miss British is not the first nor will it be the last production to do so. Yet Black and First-Nations female experience, with its histories of racial lynching and ethnic cleansing, are only tenuously linked to the histories of Singapore’s South Asian diaspora, the descendants of whom feature prominently in this production. Miss British rightly centralises the former while missing the opportunity to justly engage with the latter, aside from a brief introduction offered at the very opening of the show. As this production stems from actor-performer Sharon Frese’s original concept, it is strongly inflected with the history of the Atlantic slave trade; Frese is British-born of Jamaican ancestry. Yet this particular rendition of Miss British includes the voices and bodies of Singaporean-Indian women, who also endure the racial and aesthetic prejudices of the of the erstwhile Empire.
In her resplendent voice, Dorai sings a few lines form Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to hair raising effect. Yet Billie Holiday laments for racial violence in early 20th century, settler-colonial United States. Are we all equally bequeathed with colonialism’s unwelcome patrimony of prejudice and racial violence? The writers seem to have mistakenly assumed that the conditions and context of the North American/Caribbean slave plantation and the Malayan one were one and the same. They were not, and the distinctions are not to be discarded in favour of poetic license. Does geographic proximity of the performers in Singapore today, and the closeness in their complexions, close the gaps in history that separate the experiences and realities of their ancestors?
It is the bicentennial year of Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival in Singapore and our shared colonial afterlife is a hot topic in the island’s artistic and academic circles. As a “first-world” nation that has arguably benefitted from colonial institutions of trade, law and administration, Singapore’s artists are in a unique position to explore how colonial structures of thought and feeling persist unfavourably in the contemporary social realm. Miss British centralises the question of postcolonial identity upon three women from two of Singapore’s racial minority groups — Indian and “Other”. In doing so, the production reveals the postcolonial body as a key site where colonial power still lingers. It has its moments of success in this endeavour. It fails however, to move past its tirade against white beauty standards, which the final, hasty conclusion resolves unsatisfactorily.
Miss British was presented by The Art of Strangers (Singapore), and ran 4 – 7 Apr 2019 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
Guest Contributor Aparna Nambiar is Ph.D candidate at the University of California Berkeley Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies. She is also an Odissi dance practitioner based in Singapore, with an M.A. in Theatre Studies and International Performance Research from the Universities of Amsterdam and Warwick respectively. Her current research looks at South and Southeast Asian capital flows that sustain cultural production in the region, with a particular interest in contemporary idioms of non-western dance. She was awarded the Arts Postgraduate Scholarship (2011) by the National Arts Council of Singapore.