By Nabilah Said
(1,900 words, 7-minute read)
In less than a week, Drama Box will premiere Tanah•Air 水•土: A Play In Two Parts, a production revolving around the theme of histories, those that are remembered, and those who are sidelined.
Tanah•Air features a team led by the company’s artistic director Kok Heng Leun, playwrights Neo Hai Bin and Zulfadli “Big” Rashid, and co-directors Koh Wan Ching and Adib Kosnan. The more movement-based and storytelling-centred Tanah, co-directed by Heng Leun and Wan Ching, features a cast comprising Chng Xin Xuan, Jereh Leung, Lian Sutton, Wendi Wee Hian and Deonn Yang. Air, a verbatim piece about the experiences of the Orang Seletar community now based in Johor, is co-directed by Heng Leun and Adib, and performed by Roslan Kemat, Farez Najid, Suhaili Safari and Dalifah Shahril. The production takes place at the historic Malay Heritage Centre. Once the seat of royalty in Singapore, the venue seems apt, given that “tanah” and “air” (land and sea) when taken together, translates into “homeland” in Malay.
ArtsEquator spoke with Wan Ching, Adib and sound designer Bani Haykal about issues surrounding translation, appropriation and representation in Tanah•Air, which has been in development for the past 1.5 years.
Wan Ching: Tanah’s starting point was Isa Kamari’s book, 1819. The original Malay version was titled Duka Tuan Bertakhta, and a Chinese version of the book (by Chan Maw Woh and Wing Chong) was published earlier this year. We wanted to tell the stories that were in the book, but along the way we adapted many versions. It has now evolved into a story of a discovery of a manuscript, called “The Story of Marmah”, named after a character in the book. It is part fictional and part based on the original novel as well as other sources and characters from the 19th century, such as Wak Cantuk and Munsyi Abdullah. The theme of the show revolves around the idea of possession and dispossession – especially the idea of the spirits that continue to haunt us till today, that we’re still reeling from the repercussions of.
Adib: The source of this play was a conversation about the Orang Seletar… the girl from Duka Tuan Bertakhta. “Seletar” is part of our Singaporean vernacular, from an expressway, to malls, an airbase… but there are people who that area is actually named after. The Orang Seletar are still a thriving community living across the border in the Danga area of Johor. What we share with Tanah is the idea of dispossession. We as a colonised country, we were dispossessed of certain things, but not much thought has been given to what we have taken away, especially because of ignorance. We want to talk about that ignorance. As a minority performer and creator, I always feel like we talk about the injustice we feel, but what do we subject to others – even without the intention to do so?
On a play-in-two-parts
Wan Ching: We had many meetings together in the early days of Tanah•Air. Then along the way, we worked separately. Now, it’s a matter of coming back together again. There is the thread of the space. Audiences will start with Tanah and then move indoors to see Air. Then there is the thread of history itself. Whatever the characters in Air are talking about would not have happened if we did not have this bigger context of the political struggles that were happening with colonisation, the movement of people, Singapore’s long history as a trading ground, where these communities thrived. All the things already in play, way before the white men came. It’s about how history plays out and how, up till now, it affects how people are living.
Bani: In my research, I came across some documented performances of Orang Seletar using bamboo poles of varying styles to play music collectively. They also used other instruments like harmonicas and guitars, and the younger generation performed rock music. With Tanah, I’m a live performer and the music is like a spirit that runs through the work. I was given a free pass about the kinds of instrumentation I wanted to use, so I’m using an analogue synth and the electric guitar. With Air, I’ve pre-recorded the materials that will be used for playback, and as I had wanted to extract a palette of sounds outside of what I’m used to, I thought to use the bamboo poles. I’m also introducing elements of the electric guitar in this world, so that there is a through-line in the whole piece.
On literary translations
Wan Ching: The Chinese translation of Duka Tuan Bertakhta,《悲君统治》(Bei Jun Tong Zhi), roughly translates as “The Sad King Rules”. Interestingly, the title Duka Tuan Bertakhta comes from a poem by Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar. In the context of the poem, it actually means “where sadness reigns supreme”. When we made this discovery, it gave us a new way to look at the text.
On performative languages
Wan Ching: How do we translate literary text into theatrical language? That is something we’re still struggling with (laughs). We went for a middle path – with the premise of the discovery of a manuscript, but at the same time we’re doing it outdoors, with Bani working live on sound, we have lights and we have the space. All these things come into dialogue with the literary text to make something new.
Bani: Initially in Tanah, we had characters speaking lines, but eventually it ended up becoming more of a movement piece. In the initial stages there were talks about making it strictly a Chinese wayang. That scared me a lot. Then eventually Wan Ching evolved into becoming the storyteller in the show, and I became part of that character – the musician as someone who is helping with the illustration of the story.
On lost-in-translation moments
Wan Ching: Big is our dramaturg and if I could, I would sit down with him and ask him “Big, can you tell me what’s this? What’s this?”, but I can’t always do that. Sometimes he would say things like “You all cannot do this show without knowing how to tie a kain (sarong)”. Things that we wouldn’t know otherwise. At the end of the day, we’re doing things with limited knowledge, and that becomes part of making the play.
Adib: The Orang Seletar have a very different idea of time from us, because they are always on the sea. There is a particular character that we had seen in the interviews – when we met him in person, we realised that an incident he was referring to had happened 20 years earlier than what we had thought. For them, “history” could be two weeks ago, or 200 years ago. There was one line that was like “…when human beings still had tails”.
“I thought you said it was yesterday?”
We might get frustrated that they can’t give a definite answer, but for them it’s like, “why is it important to you?”.
Wan Ching: Heng Leun was very clear about wanting to do Tanah in Chinese, but immediately there is a problem of representation. How do we represent this history? We tried many things. We thought about Brecht, which has some kind of inspiration from Chinese opera. There is a distancing between your character and you. At one time, you’re looking at both the actor and the character. So we’ve evolved such that there are many threads coming together – the text, the movement, the music, the space.
Bani: It’s convenient sometimes that if we want to illustrate certain cultural shades, we go straight to the home instruments of these cultures, say the guzheng for Chinese culture. My personal interest is not to go there, but to find a different way of expressing it through my personal repertoire. The kind of modifications I’m doing to the electric guitar in this production for example, isn’t new in any way, but it’s more about contributing to a communal sharing and morphing of ideas explored in Tanah•Air.
Adib: Even though they speak Malay, the Mother Tongue of the Orang Seletar is Kon. In the interviews with researchers and when we met them in person, there was always this wall of sorts. They were very polite and nice, but we could sense that they weren’t fully open. There were some things we didn’t understand. Sometimes they would break into their own language, and then they would come back. It was a bit Brechtian in a way – “this is my real self, and this is now the self that I put on”.
There are about seven to nine characters in Air. You can tell that some of them are really bitter about things, but it doesn’t come out in the words, but in the way things are said. The actors have to try to bring that out. But even though it’s a verbatim piece, the idea is not to become these Orang Seletar onstage, because we are not them. We don’t go through the same struggles that they go through. We found a middle ground of showing how the actor, as a Malay Singaporean performer, comes into the space and tries to access the character, before taking on these voices and sharing these stories.
Bani: Coming out of the brownface episode in Singapore, we were talking about how were the actors going to deal with the idea of this tension of who we’re reproducing and what we’re appropriating? That was useful in how I thought about sound as well – they had to come from a library of sounds, as opposed to saying that “this is the general sonic environment of Orang Seletar”. I hope that with my role in Tanah•Air, I’m fulfilling that objective of being mindful, and not painting things with broad strokes.
On their hopes for Tanah•Air
Wan Ching: There is this famous TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, about the idea of people having one story about everything. It’s convenient, it’s easy. We get fed it, and then we feed it to other people. I would really like for people to start being comfortable with the idea that there are many, many stories about many, many different people. What is your idea of truth and how do you arrive at that? We need to translate that philosophy into daily life – are we making judgements on people based on a single story?
Adib: For us to be aware of what we don’t know. And for us to ask ourselves, when do we fight back. Some of the Orang Seletar are currently fighting legal battles against the Sultan, who owns the land they are living on. One of their burial grounds had been disturbed by a recent excavation and that’s when they said, “This is enough”. At which generation do you decide to fight back? Fighting back can come in many different forms – equipping yourself with more knowledge, trying to stand up for yourself. How then do we do it? With what’s happening around the region, like in Hong Kong, it’s for us to question why do people go about it in different ways. It’s very easy to jump to conclusions without understanding what is it about this individual that they’ve decided: “This is enough, and I want to do something about it.”
Bani: With a subject matter that’s quite heavy, I would like to be part of a collective composition to give space to some of these stories, as opposed to taking on a very central role. Whether we achieve this balance will be up to the audience to decide.
Tanah•Air 水•土: A Play In Two Parts, presented by Drama Box, runs from 16 to 20 Oct 2019 at the Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore. Tanah•Air is jointly organised with Malay Heritage Centre, as part of Malay CultureFest 2019. You can get your tickets here.
This post is sponsored by Drama Box.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.
About the author(s)
Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.