Apart from groundbreaking and genre-defying performing arts works from many countries, the recently ended Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) also took on the task of commissioning a new work by local artists, giving them a opportunity to create a work that they wouldn’t do in a normal season. Checkpoint Theatre’s “Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner”, written and directed by their co-founders and co-artistic directors, Huzir Sulaiman and Claire Wong, both Malaysia-born and Singapore-based, was one prime example, and proved such a hit that another show was added to the originally scheduled three at the Victoria Theatre.
Glancing at the title and the play’s brief info, I initially thought this, being a local work from the company whose slogan is “original Singapore stories with honesty and humour, head and heart”, would be about Thai construction workers enjoying papaya salad at Golden Mile. As always, I was completely wrong. The play took place in a fictitious Organisation for Emergency Assistance’s (OEA) refugee camp and focused on the life and troubles of a group of international aid workers there rather than those of the refugees with which other media have already acquainted us.
Based on indepth research and interviews, the play provided a good amount of intriguing, if not startling, information, yet never sounded too educational. For instance, onethird of such a humanitarian organisation’s budget is being spent on fundraising, explaining why they came up with an idea, which was never realised, of inviting Gwyneth Paltrow to a dinner prepared by the refugees – hence the title – for a PR stint. Also, because of this, the headquarters in Geneva has to always make sure that the organisation keeps a clean image, no matter what actually happens in any of their operations around the world.
The drama that unfolded in the 140-minute play also reminded me of the talk accompanying a photo exhibition on refugees I attended a few days earlier. A representative of an actual organisation informed the public that the best way for us to support their operation is to donate; to work in camps means one has to always be ready to move from one to another. In the end, these aid workers, whose life and work rely on many factors including politics, might actually end up feeling like displaced persons themselves.
A sign of a long and efficient period of rehearsals, the cast members lived the lives of multinational characters and formed a united ensemble, most evident in intermittent surrealistic moments with physical movements accompanied by the sound and music created live by composer-musician duo “.gif”. Standing out was stage and screen actress Jo Tan, as Angela Ling, who, amidst all troubles, attempted to keep control of the situation.
After the Saturday evening performance, I joined three other critic colleagues, from Indonesia, Japan and Singapore, on a panel where we shared our thoughts on the play with the theatregoing public. Among the topics on which we agreed to disagree was whether or not the play would have better conveyed its messages had it been less experimental in style and trusted more on Sulaiman’s dialogues which otherwise flew naturally. The fact that many of us have smartphones doesn’t mean we’re always connected to the internet, making all calls on messaging apps and using all downloaded apps; sometimes a simple voice call sounds the best.
It’s noteworthy also that the panel wrapped the twoday inaugural Asian Arts Media Roundtable (AAMR), organised by Arts Equator, to not only network performing arts critics from eight Asean countries – including four from Thailand – plus India and Japan but also shared information, identify issues and find possible ways to work together in the future.
The writer’s trip was supported by ArtsEquator. Special thanks to Kathy Rowland and Denise Dolendo, and Huntington Communications’ Charmaine Lau for all kind assistance.
Mark your calendar
- “SIFA 2020”will run from May 15 to 31. Keep your eyes on www.sifa.sg.
- Checkpoint’s next work is “Eat Duck”, a family drama written by young playwright Zenda Tan and directed by Wong. It runs from August 29 to September 8. For more, www.CheckpointTheatre.org.
- To read what critics discussed at AAMR, check out www.ArtsEquator.com/AAMR
Published : June 12, 2019
By : PAWIT MAHASARINAND SPECIAL TO THE NATION Singapore