When I think of community, I think of diversity, accessibility and the generosity in embracing difference. To be able to sit with someone inherently unlike you and still respect them as whole persons, despite opposing points of view and habits. Perhaps a kindness in understanding where they may be coming from, and a willingness to accept that and live together in the same space. Empathy is a backbone in this equation, while our behaviours and actions form the body in which we all form together. Notice that I do not use the word tolerance, because that is not what community is about and to say that you tolerate puts you in a position higher than the other: who are you to say that you are right while the other is certainly wrong?

So then, with today’s constant segregation and culture of alienation, I yearn for a space where marginalised voices are able to be to share their stories. To have it shown as is, emotion on full display and for them to be empowered in the telling of their valid lived experiences without tone policing, censorship and bias. To take their space they deserve and to challenge the perpetuated narrative of the majority or people of power, which is more often than not curated and not the whole truth. (After all, truth is what we believe to be true and how easily to manipulate that with voices silenced and selective airtime?)

This is where the power of Tanah•Air 水•土: A Play In Two Parts lies. Looking into the dispossession and loss of the indigenous Malays and Orang Seletar of Singapore, the two plays explore their eventual displacement from the “Tanah” (land) and “Air” (water) they called home due to politics as well as foreign interventions. Multilingual and a three-hour performance, this theatre piece is not here to be polite but to speak up, regardless of possible discomfort and confrontation of difficult realities.

How apt it is then that “Tanah Air” translates to “homeland” in English.

Inspired by Isa Kamari’s “Duka Tuan Bertakhta”, “Tanah” is a Chinese piece by theatre practitioner Neo Hai Bin. It follows a young girl named Marmah who adapts to living on land after she loses her home adrift on the sea in 1819 Singapore. It beckons the question of home, identity and who has the power or right to the very land people live on.

Air” looks at the displacement of the Orang Seletar through a verbatim performance, written by Zulfadli Rashid after interviews with the community. An indigenous community in Singapore, they were somehow forgotten and made to resettle in Johor as Singapore kept developing. In recent times, they face the threat of being displaced once again due to the impending development of their customary territories.

Both pieces speak about loss and the questioning of authoritative power that seems to neglect the very people it is supposed to care for. Relevant in today’s politically turbulent world, Tanah•Air 水•土: A Play In Two Parts could not have been staged at a better time. Poetic, heartbreaking and confronting, the audience members journey through the theatrical experiences with vulnerability and a silence so heavy that it could suffocate.

Tanah, directed by Kok Heng Leun and Koh Wan Ching 

Staged at the Malay Heritage Centre’s front lawn, Tanah takes place after the last prayers are done at Masjid Sultan. The prayers leave me tranquil as I listen in from my seat, taking in the peacefulness of my surroundings. It is in this state that I observe the ensemble crawl out from drainage, travelling towards the fountain of the performance space. Careful to avoid stepping on the books laid open on the fountain platform, the ensemble consisting of Chng Xin Xuan, Deonn Yang, Jereh Leung, Lian Sutton and Wendi Wee Hian dress in black spiky outerwear that matches their distorted and abstract movements.

They bring out the essence of the tale being narrated to us through movements, gesture and the symbolic use of water. With a strong emphasis on the style of devised theatre, the ensemble seem to participate in games and improvisations with rules that we are not privy to. They travel across space with ease and it is no secret that their stamina is enviable by the average person. However, it is in the containment of their energy where they draw eyes to watch them — the final wedding procession that morphs into a funeral march impactful and one moment to remember.

The narration by Wan Ching is interesting, in the sense where her white costume seems to suggest purity and calm, yet becomes a funeral garb of sorts by the end of the performance. Her demeanour collected, with the exception of occasional facial expressions of emotion, but her voice speaks otherwise, embodying the turbulence of Marmah’s short life in the words she reads.

But what stood out to me is Bani Haykal‘s evocative music that fades in and out of my consciousness; always present in the shadows. Quietly sitting next to Wan Ching, I have never seen him look up from his instruments yet his sense of time flows with the text like the sea kissing the shore, natural and in synergy.

Air, directed by Kok Heng Leun and Adib Kosnan

Entering the Malay Heritage Centre’s Auditorium, there is a map drawn in coloured chalk on the ground which marks the surrounding territories of our region. Clever, since chalk is so easy to manipulate, remove and remark — which is something authoritative powers have no problems doing today and leaving displaced people in its wake time and time again. There is also a metal structure lying in the middle with artefacts of sea life surrounding it. Initially, the shape reminds me of a boat — which is the home and life of the Orang Seletar back when they lived on sea. However the more I look at it, the more it resembles a coffin but I cannot say if that is intentional or not. It did mean something to me though, a foreshadowing of what is to come.

The ensemble Roslan Kemat, Farez Najid, Suhaili Safari and Dalifah Shahril walk around the performance space before settling on the boat in the same composition as a photograph shown on the auditorium screens. Then one by one they start to speak, associating themselves with a chosen artefact and serving the audience background knowledge through one monologue after another. Delivering individual monologues as well as collective ones, the text flows nicely and is accompanied with movements in our daily vocabulary.

There are many powerful moments, visually, that arrest my attention. The loss Dalifah’s character feels over the death of a child and the image of Farez’s character sitting under a stream of sand free falling onto the top of his head are one of the few that tug at my heart.

The direction for both pieces bring out the text in different ways but with similar intentions of allowing the story to breathe and speak for itself. Tanah takes on a more abstract approach, highlighting key moments and using dance as well as silat to enable movements and flow. Although busy and can get distracting at times, the narration and live music holds anchor — keeping pace, time and coherence. Air is more straightforward, the emotions leading the stories, with the actors pushing the narration forward every bit of the way. Perhaps it is also the choice of space and the physical closeness that makes this piece of work more intimate and personal.

This is also made possible with a team of creatives that each holds their own artistically. The detailed eye of set designer Akbar Syadiq Samion brings choice materials and shapes sparks the imagination of the audience, serving as a reference and starting point for both plays in terms of context, time and space. Costume designer Max Tan‘s sensitivity to fabric contextualises the style of both plays distinctively. Then the visions of lighting designer Lim Woan Wen and sound designer Bani Haykal build the atmosphere and worlds of the theatrical experience.

With such powerful texts and artistic visions, Tanah•Air 水•土: A Play In Two Parts is certainly an experience theatrically as well as emotionally. Sure, it requires stamina to be still and stay with the plays due to the themes and mere length. However, I believe it is the least we can do to ensure that these stories live on and not remain buried by ignorance.

So where is our tanah air and who are we to say that they have no place here with us?

Must new homes always come at the cost of older ones?

Why are some lives more valid than others?

Who decides?

Photos by Zinkie Aw, courtesy of Drama Box


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