By Akanksha Raja
(1500 words, seven-minute read)
dead was the body till i taught it how to move (dwtb) is Bhumi Collective’s first production of the year, and just like their two principal works of 2017 – Every Brilliant Thing with Andrew Marko and The Last of Their Generation with Mohamed Shaifulbahri – it is a one-man show. Through monologue and occasional interludes of movement, former Ministry of Education scholar, would-be teacher and b-boy Dominic Nah tells a fragmented story comprising significant events in his life, chiefly his fractured relationship with his father and his journey in breaking (Nah deems it “exorcism”) in Singapore and the University of Warwick. At the heart of this story is his trip to the Bronx, New York City, to connect with the roots of hip-hop, culminating in a highly anticipated meeting with the godfather of the genre, DJ Kool Herc. The story of that “pilgrimage” is interspersed with scenes from the aftermath of his father’s death: the parallel storytelling unravels both journeys that ultimately disabuse him of idealistic notions of heroes and father figures.
The play also skims other preoccupations that are less fledged: for example, the dissonance Nah negotiates between his lower-middle class upbringing and the societal perceptions of privilege or “elitism” that come with studying in the UK on a scholarship among a more affluent group of fellow scholars. There is also a scene where Nah laments that the woman with whom his father had an affair was a senior teacher in a primary school – but the pain of this revelation feels unsubstantiated. More oblique plot points are signposted by cryptic reappearances of a Ziploc bag of prescription pills, alluding to an unspecified and unaddressed illness. Nah, playing himself as a child talking to his father, fingers the strips of medicine that his younger self happily imagines to be Hot Wheels toy cars. I read into this brief muted image a vague sentiment about trauma as the dark underbelly of an apparently pleasant childhood, the insidious tainting of innocence. But with no coherent reference points, it seemed like a red herring. Then, that psychosomatic stasis of the dead body in the title – presumably depression? – isn’t quite addressed either. “A few months ago I’d been sleeping 12 hours a day. I don’t know if you’ve ever,” says Nah, “but it’s like everything, your brain and everything, is moving, except this [his body]. The key is in the moving.” Unfortunately, Nah never explains what this key is for or what he’s been going through or looking for – a frustrating opacity that recurs throughout the entire production. Because it flits between so many disparate issues, it becomes difficult to access the very core of the sense of disillusionment and disappointment it keeps suggesting, and the direction of that longing.
I watched two performances of this run at the Aliwal Arts Centre’s Multipurpose Hall: the opening night at 8pm on 11 July, and the penultimate performance at 3pm on 14 July. I’d decided to watch the performance a second time because I had struggled to make sense of what was happening on opening night, nor could I emotionally access critical parts of what was being shared. Nah’s energy that first night was jittery and erratic, with a palpable lack of self-assurance; important, revelatory lines were inaudible, and the sharpest lines of the text furled into themselves like flashpaper – when contemplating the living room where he now sleeps, the same room in which his father died, Nah remarks it’s “a scar so dark it’s like a hole in the universe.” But it seemed like Nah couldn’t quite believe the heft of these words, even though he had lived them.
It was in my second viewing that I could make out the bones of this story. By the matinee on Saturday, Nah carried more decisiveness in his gait and conviction in his voice, but he still lacked the finesse and charisma of that kind of storytelling that elevates personal stories from LiveJournal entry quality to art. A confessional monologue is a monumental endeavour, and for all its associated “realness” or “rawness”, there are so many thresholds of vulnerability the performer needs to cut through before being able to put their heart out on stage. There’s their own reconciling with the messy, sometimes unresolvable tangles of their personal lives, and the self-negotiated process of constellating narratives out of those faultlines. Then, the act of sharing these stories with trusted companions and collaborators – in this case, writer Edward Eng, movement director (and fellow b-boy) Michael Ng and stage director Adeeb Fazah. Finally, there’s the vulnerability of laying oneself bare to an entire crowd of an audience of strangers, family and friends, five times in four days. Even for a seasoned or trained performer, this is no easy feat. As someone who is neither, Nah’s struggles with playing such a version of himself were glaringly apparent. Rather than taking ownership and control over his feelings of fragility and fear, it seemed he let them take over him and manoeuvre the show.
Where Nah is most articulate and empowered is in breaking. This is what makes the final act most compelling, in a three-minute spell of evocative movement to Jimmy Castor’s It’s Just Begun. Breakers don’t usually move for that many minutes – so this act moves past usual breaking routines towards a transcendent confrontation between Nah and the imagined ghost of his father lurking amid his own shadows on the curtains of the Multipurpose Hall. His body finds the vocabulary needed for this moment, and articulates his terror and aggression louder than in any scene prior. The potency of that closing scene hits at what was to me the most intriguing premise of this show – the encounter between the two performance modes of breaking and theatre. Aliwal Arts Centre plays host to a number of street dance events, which makes it the logical choice of venue for the production – but it doesn’t offer many favours in terms of acoustics. The less movement-driven direction didn’t quite leverage on this, and didn’t play enough to Nah’s physical strengths.
The loneliness of Nah’s solo self-revelation is buoyed by the presence of Eng, Ng and Adeeb, who sit in on every show, a trinity of fraternal angels watching over Nah’s space and his safety, playing along every time Nah swings around to crack a quick inside joke, whooping after sets of power moves. It brought the in-the-round set-up a tiny step closer to the communal intimacy of the cypher, albeit one in which there is only one performer. Sitting diametrically opposite the three of them in the round, it was impossible not to read them into the work as integral parts of Nah’s life. In making theatre, especially with long-time, trusted friends, there isn’t much of a distinction between the personal and professional. As I watched their interactions during the two shows, as well as through the individual conversations I had with the team afterwards, it was clear how deeply meaningful this project was to everyone who worked on it. What a pity that I could not access this through the performance alone. I could appreciate this endeavour as a kind of group therapy, but not a robust piece of theatre. Performance happened to be the frame for this catharsis, a “medium” for Nah’s “exorcism”. The audience for most shows comprised members of the local breaking community, personal friends, and family. Based on my observations as well as conversations with other members of the audience, responses were diverse. There were those who, like me, were largely nonplussed, but there were also those moved to tears at the soul-baring of over 90 minutes. Movement director Ng told me about the lengthy messages he’d received from friends in the breaking community, sharing their appreciation for a deeply personal story by a breaker about breaking. For breakers who may not otherwise watch theatre, this is a decent introduction to a very different performance mode. As a mainstage theatre production in Bhumi Collective’s 2018 season, however, dead was the body left much to be desired.
dead was the body is one of the latest monologues in a year chockablock with them, whether they be reworkings of older works (How Did The Cat Get So Fat, My Grandfather Road, @thisisemeraldgirl) or brand new original works (most of the Esplanade’s Studios series, Platform Series: Journeys, and An Actress Prepares and Building a Character at the recent Singapore Theatre Festival). Singaporean monodramas are becoming increasingly personal and specific, with unique and individual stories coming to the fore. Some may say navel-gazing, self-indulgent, and it may perhaps be symptomatic of a more self(ie)-obsessed generation, but the best of these works present opportunities to discover more about each other in a progressively diverse community and the complex stories there are to share and connect with in a world that grows wilder and wilder by the day, in which we continually look for ways to be kinder and more empathetic listeners. With a little more sharpening dead was the body has the potential to be a strong testament to that, and the transformative and healing power of movement and performance.
dead was the body till i taught it how to move by Bhumi Collective ran from 11 – 14 July at Aliwal Arts Centre’s multipurpose hall. This review is based on the performances that took place on 11 July, 8pm and 14 July, 3pm.