The Malay Man And His Chinese Father.
By Noor Effendy Ibrahim.
29 September 2016 to 2 October 2016
Goodman Arts Centre Black Box
Effendy’s work, The Malay Man And His Chinese Father, was rich, layered and moving. It had a poignant narrative to it, but deliberately suspending its narrative while watching the performance yielded an even richer experience.
There was so much fluidity in the work leading to countless possibilities and suggestions. But Effendy was clever in never allowing these suggestions to become concrete.
The setting was very real. In fact, it was banal. But because of the very fluid dramaturgy, the piece also became surreal.
Yazid Jalil, playing the character of the Malay Man, shifts between male and female, masculinity and femininity. In fact, it was quite fascinating how after donning a sarong kebaya and applying some lipstick, Yazid still looked very much male to me. On one hand, the act of wearing a sarong kebaya was read as a representation of a female character in the work. But issues of transgenderism were also highlighted cleverly through this act.
Because of this, Yazid’s character was also thrown into ambiguity. Perhaps, when he donned the kebaya, he was re-enacting a memory that the Chinese Father encountered in his younger days? Tender gestures such as dutifully feeding the Chinese Father (played by Michael Tan) a bowl of porridge as well as the Chinese Father constantly yearning, sometimes quite insistently and violently, for this female character’s physical affection alluded to a relationship that was obviously long-standing. It could have been his wife, it could even have been his mother because at certain points, a well known Chinese folk song about the nobility of maternal affection would be sung by the physically ailing Chinese Father.
Or perhaps, it was not a memory being enacted, but a dutiful son dressing up as the female character the dementia stricken Chinese Father was close to. Perhaps that would be the only way the Father would eat? This was another very attractive aspect of ambiguity that the performance managed to pull off – the fact that the performance could have been an unbroken narrative set in its present, or it could also have been a narrative that shuttled back and forth between its present and its past.
With these clearly thought out layers, the work allowed many entry points and slyly broached numerous pertinent contemporary social issues – gender and sexuality, abuse, mental illness just to name a few – without being brazenly and tiresomely in-your-face.
Effendy’s method of repeating the scene four times emphasised banality. Through meticulously choreographed pathways, gesture, and even set and lighting design, the humdrum of existence played out. Yazid’s Malay Man opened windows with the same calculated gestures each and every time; the way he closed his eyes and heaved a big sigh in his kebaya before walking daintily out of the bedroom to attend to the Father; the way the Chinese Father arthritically shuffled his feet to get himself from toilet to dining table to rattan chair again and again; the clear repetition of these choreographic structures and gestures allowed subtle changes to register significantly.
In the work, intentionally small gestures served as little cracks that offered glimpses into the more nuanced layers of the work. A cup of coffee was the Chinese Father’s source of comfort. Throughout the work, the act of spooning more coffee powder and sugar into the same cup was carried out. Never once was the coffee discarded. One can only imagine how the taste of something as good as coffee gets ruined because of these constant additions. It is a little bit like the accumulated experiences in one’s life becoming the sum total of one’s existence.
In another gesture, a pot of porridge left to boil over evoked poignant ideas of neglect and abandon.
The Malay Man And His Chinese Father was cleverly created and powerfully delivered. Its strength was its ability to make rather provocative social commentary without being brazen. The situations played out in the work showed experiences that many of us are familiar with on some level. It was easy to relate to. Yet, even though it broached many social topics, it did not vociferously harangue. Rather, it played out on an affective level, moving me with its moments of abject sadness, tenderness, helplessness and redemption.