By Victoria Chen, edited by Teo Dawn
Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai has stories to tell. In her solo show Building A Character, she worked together with playwright Ruth Tang and shares vignettes from her childhood, her ambitions, her memories of certain family members, of a plate of noodles and a tiger beer, of the shows she has done and the time she had her earphones in but overheard two receptionists talking about her before an audition.
And there are some things she shows, like the new condominium she dreams of being in a commercial for, but is unfortunately only looking for Chinese or Pan-Asian faces—whatever Pan-Asian means, she questions. Or when she as Lady Macbeth dangles her palm over a flame—the same palm that she uses to flag a taxi at night, because it is the only thing drivers can see apart from her eyes and teeth.
Power comes from her being able to laugh at herself, while making the audience think twice before laughing themselves.
Throughout the performance, Rebekah—or Sangeetha, depending on who you are—lures the audience into her history… and imagination. Fiction and reality are intricately woven together, leaving the audience to question if certain events happened or were dramatised, or perhaps both? But what remains evident is that Rebekah is in control. She decides which stories to revisit, what sensations to evoke, when to reiterate something that was mentioned fifteen minutes earlier, and what the audience gets to see.
One simple but powerful image is when she explains the difference between ‘Chinese lighting’ and ‘Indian lighting’ in the theatre. She describes herself as “ashen” in the former, but when she steps into the latter, murmurs of agreement ripple through the audience as they see her glow in amber.
In fact, each comment she makes about performing her ethnicity (“I know you like it when I do the accent”) is a reality check for her primarily Chinese and white audience. She jokes about the number of ‘r’s she has to add to her lines to make it “more Indian”, and the interchanging ‘v’s and ‘w’s for comedic effect—at the expense of the actor’s fulfillment for the audience’s ignorant entertainment. But Rebekah can do a multitude of accents beyond caricaturing the Indian auntie. She can even sing like Shakira or Rihanna if she wanted to.
But the question remains, where are the opportunities for her to do so beyond the occasional racial harmony video?
The Singapore Theatre Festival is on until 22nd July. Check out the festival guide here.
Photography credits: W!ld Rice