If you absolutely had to choose 1 of the 3 plays to go for in W!ld Rice’s Alfian Sa’at In The Spotlight festival, there’s no question that Cook a Pot of Curry should be your choice.
It’s not because the other 2 plays: Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1 and The Optic Trilogy are mediocre in comparison, but because Curry hasn’t previously been staged, unlike the 2 revivals of his earlier works. More importantly, it tackles a very recent and pertinent issue that has got many Singaporeans hot under the collar: foreign talent.
Just like Alfian’s 2012 play, Cooling Off Day, Curry is a social commentary. In fact, what will lend it more gravitas is that it’s not cooked up at all, since this work, like a documentary, is based on stories of actual people that Alfian interviewed. This play might even top the former; the monologues are not only more powerful, but also more varied and thought-provoking. While Cooling Off Day only featured Singaporeans, Curry showed the views of citizens, Permanent Residents and foreigners, which allowed us to here from people we thought would not really care about this influx of foreign talent.
Though the set, designed by Wong Chee Wai, is simple—a sparse, white space with 6 white boxes as chairs—Cook a Pot of Curry was certainly campier than Cooling Off Day, with actors often cross dressing, like Najib Soiman playing a Malay auntie. The play is interspersed with song and dance routines, the highlight being a parody of one of the most memorable National Day songs, “Home” by Kit Chan. These lightened up the mood and made sure that the audience didn’t get too restless from the continuous and static monologues. However, they definitely did not take away the weight of the many opinions. Instead, it injected humour in a smart and relevant way by keeping it uniquely Singaporean.
Another pleasant surprise is the costumes, which were not only authentic but also used to hilarious effect, from subtle (Chinese coffee shop lady with a fanny pack) to exaggerated (long haired wig for the “mat-rocker”). Not only are they stereotypically accurate—think Chinese lady with overly permed hair— there’s also a segment about Miss Singapore Universe’s costumes that got us in stiches. All the male actors appeared cross-dressed in the most horrible of costumes and wave like genial pageant girls to emphasise the opinion in one of the monologues: that designing for the Miss Singapore Universe pageant is a sure way to end a fashion designer’s career.
The visuals that accompany the string of monologues are also extremely cohesive and sometimes personal. Family portraits of the actual interviewees, pictures of the protest against the controversial Population White Paper, which proposed Singapore’s population to reach 6.9 million people by 2030 and foreigners to make up almost half the population, and foreign workers are used to great emotional effect. It helps us understand these characters aren’t fictional, but actually very genuine.
Certainly, the fact that each actor has to play so many different roles for the monologues convinces you that they, including Neo Swee Lin who played the beloved Ah Ma on Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd, are some of the best in “Singapore, JB and some say Batam”.
The cast was very well chosen; every role that the actors played seem like it made for them, even though they were real and separate people. And indeed, they assume each role with such believability that you forget that they’re all the same actors. Even though all that will change are their clothes, they put on a different persona and accent for every character that has obviously been honed through much practice and research. Just like Michelle Chong’s Filipino accent on The Noose, Judee Tan and Nelson Chia’s Mainland Chinese accent stands out from the pack. It is nuanced and unexaggerated when spoken in English or Mandarin, and used not only to gather laughs but also gives credibility to the characters. These thespians make you empathise with the characters that they’re playing, even when you only knew them for all of 5 minutes. They’re capable of evoking emotions and a sense of camaraderie that locals in the audience take to like bees to honey. But it was definitely Glen Goei’s directing that perfected the package. The play was incredibly seamless, each actor come and go from the stage, take his or her place in a monologue or a group skit with a wonderfully effortless flow.
What must be applauded about this play is the spectrum of views they showed. From Permanent Residents (PRs) calling Singapore their home, to the heartlander questioning his national identity, this play is sure to give the audience as wide a variety of opinions as possible.
There were, of course, some very biased views (one monologue reiterated the opinion commonly found on the Internet that the government is only allowing foreigners easy passage to citizenship so they will vote for PAP, the ruling party) that may reinforce yours on the topic of foreign talent, but mostly, the opinions shown weren’t only neutral, but also encouraged you to think about the state of Singapore in ways you never have. There was one particular skit featuring taxi drivers speaking in dialect that got the crowd roaring in laughter.
Just as stereotypical cabbies do, the actors speak in crude and colloquial Hokkien and Teochew. Sadly, they swore more than the ordinary cab driver; it almost seemed that they were only using Hokkien expletives to get laughs and gasps.
Cook a Pot of Curry is certainly not something to bring your tourist friends to. Much of the material that is drawn from local current events, colloquial language and Singaporean mannerisms, will likely bewilder foreigners.
However, this play is a must-watch for every Singaporean. Unless you’re entirely apathetic, the influx of foreign talent is a common topic/rant on many of our countrymen’s lips. Politicians, too, might want to take note as this work gives a concise round up of the general populace’s opinions. While there’s no revelation, the content being not much different from what you’ll hear in coffee shops and read in online forums and FB posts, with clever interjections of satirical songs and skits, Cook a Pot of Curry lightens up the mood of an inevitably heated debate over this issue. It also reminds us all that despite all the very vocally expressed unhappiness and threats to migrate, Singaporeans still care and love Singapore very much.
Cook a Pot of Curry runs until 20th July, and tickets are available through SISTIC.
Photos courtesy of W!LD RICE.