By Kathy Rowland
(900 words, 5-minute read)
Kenneth (Koh Boon Pin) and Liam (Emil Marwa) are a gay couple, fathers to their young son, Jayden (Dylan Jenkins). Kenneth’s ailing father, a fancy job and the chance for Jayden to connect with Kenneth’s home country bring them back to Singapore after many years in the UK. Their plan for a smooth transition is quickly derailed when a waitress, shocked by their modern family, refuses to serve them. Kenneth is outraged by her bigotry and a heated argument ensues.
Pangdemonium Theatre’s Tango, written by Joel Tan, has its genesis in a real life incident of homophobia, recounted in the blog 4 Relative Strangers. The title alludes to the 2014 proscription of a children’s book, And Tango Makes Three by the National Library for is alleged homosexual content. The play deals with the confrontation between gay rights and homophobia, a hot button issue that is but one battle in the multi-fronted Cultural Wars 5.0.
After a YouTube video of the restaurant encounter goes viral, the weight of the internet descends on the waitress, Poh Lin (Lok Meng Chue). As her back-story is revealed – she is a single mother to her nephew, Benmin (Benjamin Chow), who himself is struggling with his sexuality – our view of the antagonist sifts; we’re frustrated by her bigotry but also forced to reckon with her humanity. Our perception of the other players is tested too, as we encounter Kenneth’s intransigence despite his best friend Elaine’s (Karen Tan) entries on behalf of Poh Lin and his father, Richard’s (Lim Kay Siu) grudging acceptance of Liam.
This practiced objectivity and nuanced position are what audiences today expect. No one wants cartoonish victims and villains (we’re looking at you Prism) or make-a-pointism scripts (why, Tropicana?). Joel Tan’s script however, went beyond the requirements of counter-narratives by developing characters that felt real, not mouthpieces for the greater good. Benmin’s anger with and loyalty to his aunt, Kenneth’s love-hate feelings for Singapore, Poh Lin’s essential goodness and her blinding ignorance – people do not behave with the consistency and clarity of purpose that the dictates of a story-telling arc might have us believe. Tango keeps shifting the ground and in so doing, it evades the curse of the earnest, the blight of the politically correct, the tedious predictability of the social justice warrior.
If the production had left it there, Tango could have checked off ‘balanced’ and ‘art as advocacy’ and been justifiably pleased with itself. For the audience, watching the fine cast and the taut direction would have been an exercise in solidarity and reassurance. What better proof of how evolved we are than our insights into, and empathy for, our antagonists?
Preaching to the choir is easy. Instead, Tango aims for something riskier, rarer – implicating its audience. Prejudice and moral judgement are central themes. There is Poh Lin’s homophobia, of course, and those of her ilk, which culminates in a shocking act of violence by the ‘fundys’ (fundamentalist Christians) on an innocent child. But it’s also there in the veiled contempt, and superiority that slips out from Kenneth. There in the retribution-seeking, self-righteous netizens and protesters outside Poh Lin’s restaurant who mount a highly effective campaign that results in her losing her job and being harassed. As the play progresses, Poh Lin’s isolation and precarity is heightened by her being confined to the top most corner of the set, which is steeply raked.
Set Designer Wai Yin Kwok’s decision to go vertical paid off handsomely, producing functional and figurative spaces that director Tracie Pang put to full use. The visual sense of living on top of each other captured the very local urban landscape, as well as the inter-relatedness and claustrophobia of our hyper-mediated world. The precision of the sound (Jing Ng) and lighting design (James Tan) created moments, masked transitions, and captured moods, giving the staging a richness that belied the sparsity of the set. I was less enamoured with the multimedia design, by Genevieve Peck. It worked beautifully when it conveyed the viral, contagious nature of online controversies for example. But I found it, more often than not, a distraction from the cracking work the performers were doing.
Tracie Pang’s direction stretched the already accomplished cast further. Loke Meng Chu embodied Poh Lin with her slow lumbering movements, winded speech and mix of naivety and bloody-mindedness. Kay Siu’s Richard was in equal measure irascible and kind, contrite and unapologetic. Ruzaini Mazani’s performance as Benmin’s date, Zul? Swipe right! Their interaction had a sweet comfort that showed up the lack of chemistry in Koh Boon Pin and Emil Marwa’s portrayal of Kenneth and Liam. Koh’s slightly strident formality captured a particular kind of middle-aged old JC boy that fitted the character well. The incomparable Karen Tan seemed to physically shrink as Elaine, transmitting the character’s passivity, which is in conflict with her sense of fairness and empathy.
Tango holds a mirror up, not only to society at large, but to the socially liberal, inclusive, highly engaged demographic that would have been drawn to this production, given its subject matter. Its message: the quest for revenge and the power of group-think afflicts all sides, even those occupying the moral high ground. Self-reflection is the only response.
“Tango a mesmeric showcase of talent” by Cheong Suk-Wai (Straits Times)
“Review of Tango” by bakchormeeboy
“Tango by Pangdemonium, Spoiler Free Review” by Jing En Lim (Dear Straight People)
“Theatre Review: Tango“ by Adibah Isa (Buro247)
“Tango“ by Naeem Kapadia (Crystal Words)
“Dancing Around an Issue” by Eugene Koh (Write Wing Theatre)
Pangdemonium Theatre’s Tango is on from 19 May – 4 June 2017 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Written by Joel Tan and directed by Tracie Pang, it features Koh Boon Pin, Emil Marwa, Lim Kay Siu, Lok Meng Chue, Karen Tan, Benjamin Chow, Ruzaini Mazani and Dylan Jenkins. Set design by Wai Yin Kwok, Sound Design by Jing Ng, Lighting Design by James Tan with multimedia designed by Genevieve Peck.
About the author(s)
Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.