Well-known for her plays that reflect local concerns, Jean Tay is a playwright that most Singaporeans or at least students would know of. Boom and Everything But The Brain are two plays performed multiple times in recent years, and still remain as relevant as ever. There is just something that lives on in her words that shed new light every time you revisit them.
This July, her latest work The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey is about to be staged at the Drama Centre Theatre. Featuring Nathan Hartono, George Chan and Na-Young Jeon, the musical is an adaptation of Meng Jiang Nü’s story based in Imperial China. It is said that her tears brought The Great Wall of China down, and is testament to how powerful one woman’s love and courage can be.
So what exactly spurred Jean to write this musical and to bring it to a local audience?
Popspoken talks to the playwright and discover about the number of musicals she has actually written, and about being a strong woman.
Popspoken: What inspired you to write a musical, after your plays Boom and Everything But The Brain?
Jean: “Great Wall” is actually the fifth musical I’ve written! The first was “The Admiral’s Odyssey” in 2005, where I actually first got to work with the director Darren Yap and producer Grace Low. We’ve worked together since on several more musicals, including a children’s musical, “Pinocchio”, where I also met composer/lyricist David Shrubsole. The four of us enjoyed working with each other so much, that we decided to create a new musical together, and chose to adapt an Asian folktale with a strong female protagonist…. And that’s how we came up with the idea of doing a musical adaptation of the epic journey of Meng Jiang Nu.
PS: What about Meng Jiang Nü fascinates you, and to spur you to write this piece of work?
J: Meng Jiang Nu is a very strong female protagonist, which is actually quite rare in traditional Chinese folktales. And yet, she starts off as a ordinary village girl, who is driven by her loyalty and love for her husband to undertake a remarkable journey across China that she is ill-equipped for. But because she perseveres through that journey, she becomes someone who is quite extraordinary, and whose grief can actually bring down a section of the Great Wall, and her story has been passed on through generations.
PS: Is there a particular woman in Singapore that reminds you of Jiang Nü’s strength?
J: War heroine Elizabeth Choy and dancer-choreographer Goh Lay Kuan strike me as extraordinary examples of a woman’s strength and resilience. They are both remarkable women of courage, who went through incredible suffering with much grace and integrity.
PS: As a woman, how important do you feel your gender aids or impedes you? And what is the greatest quality you believe women have?
J: I guess I’ve been quite fortunate because I’ve never felt particularly hampered nor aided by my gender. And I’ve met such a diverse range of women in my life, some of whom inspired with me with their courage, others with their compassion, others with their intelligence, and yet others with their nurturing personality… I find it hard to reduce it down to a single greatest quality.
PS: What do you hope audience members will take away from this musical?
J: Nowadays, it seems very easy to start building walls between ourselves and people who are different from us.
There’s a lot of fear and misunderstanding, and unwillingness to listen to others who may hold different views. And that’s how we end up with societies that are very polarised. I hope that audiences will find the courage to step out of their own comfort zones, and to reach out to those who are different from us. Just by listening and opening our hearts with compassion and understanding, we can start to break down the walls of division between us.
The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey
Date: 14th to 30th July 2017
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre
Time: Tuesday to Saturday – 8pm, Saturday & Sunday – 3pm
Admission: From $58 (Concession rates available. Get your tickets here.)
Note: The role of Meng Jiang Nü will be played by Ethel Yap for performances on 16th July – 3pm, 19th July – 8pm and 26th July – 8pm.