Guilty as Charged

I caught Chong Tze Chien’s play, Charged, at the National Library Building Drama Centre Black Box theatre today, and was absolutely blown away by the quality of the local production.

Maybe I have preconceived notions about local productions, and hence, I, too, am guilty as charged. The production was all about the thorny issues of race, prejudice, division. Ultimately, I found that it was a play about truth with a heartwarming ending that did leave questions to be resolved, but for the right reasons.

The Black Box theatre was the perfect staging for such a play. In the same building, there was the staging of Huzir Sulaiman’s The Weight of Silk on Skin, which had a glitzy reception on Level 3 (where I spotted Ivan Heng himself!). This was such a contrast to the venue and size of the audience for this unassuming, yet, powerful, play presented by Teater Ekamatra as part of the Man Singapore Theatre Festival 2011.

Powerful because it broke all the norms of political correctness. By layering the flashbacks of 3 different accounts of the deaths of two army soldiers in camp, with the ongoing investigations of the incident lead by one LTC Victor, there was an element of disorientation above the cacophony of voices which discussed why we are not colour-blind, yet, we take pains to hide it in this society. The acting was riveting; each character held their own. I was particularly impressed by Anwar Hadi Ramli (playing Cpl Zubir Abdullah), Rodney Oliveiro (playing LTC Victor), and Tan Shou Chen (playing Cpl Shengyi).

This was the second staging of the play, and, like a good novel, it left me wanting more. Though I did find some of the reactions to the incident within the play melodramatic (especially the introduction of the mothers of the two dead soldiers), the acting by Serene Chen and Aidli “Alin” Mosbit was so good, I didn’t mind this in the end.  It resonated in the larger picture of how “indifference was the new racism” and how the deaths of two already misunderstood characters, could open such a can of worms about race and class, in a society which represses its own feelings for the sake of a semblance of racial harmony.

The brutal honesty was refreshing. I liked the open-ended question of how the two soldiers died, and towards the end, when Cpl Zubir Abdullah revealed the racism towards his own race to  LTC Victor, and asked him to charge him for instigating the fight between the two dead soldiers, the latter lost control and started mouthing a string of expletives and racist remarks against Abdullah, kicking and beating him, while Abdullah just winced, and laughed, on the ground. I thought that was one powerful scene, for the objective Victor, bent on presenting a convenient truth, finally dropped his guard and said what he truly felt about Abdullah’s race, and Abdullah was at least happy he evinced such a raw reaction. At the end of the beating, I found the dialogue so telling.

Victor: I didn’t mean what I said just now.

Abdullah: (sarcastically) Sir, no one means what they say.

And I was moved to tears when the two mothers embraced in the end. For it truly lay claim to Abdullah’s words, that no one truly means what they say, and in the midst of speculative journos and the political and racial fallout surrounding the incident, all the two mothers wanted was for their sons to rest in peace. Ironic because instead of an “address” to the nation, the mothers just stood there and embraced each other, symbolic that what we say sometimes doesn’t even matter, and that our half-hearted attempts at second-guessing someone or something we don’t exactly understand, might sometimes be futile when we find that all we want is the same thing – acceptance, which transcends the emptiness of words.

With so many versions of the shooting incident that transpired within the play, I liked the post-show talk with the cast, Director (Zizi Azah Abdul Majid) and Chong Tze Chien, who I think were the real stars of the show. Zizi Azah’s directions were brilliant. The incorporation of the singing by Anwar Hadi Ramli and the soldiers at the start, the tableau of shooting Cpl Hakim (played by Yazid Jalil), the back-and-forths from various time dimensions. These added to the surreal nature of the play, and rightly so. In the end, I gathered that sometimes ‘truth’ doesn’t matter at the end, it’s what you make of it and what you do with it that does.

I will definitely pick up a copy of Chong Tze Chien’s publication, and I will ruminate on what was written (since I can’t remember so much of the dialogue now).

But all in all, I am so happy that W!ld Rice is partnering with Man Investments, the British  investment management company, in their first sponsorship of the arts in Asia. And it was a great National Day gift for a lot of us, being proud that good theatre is having its chance to shine leading up to August the 9th.

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