Sweet Sa’at-isfaction

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Even if you’re not big on theatre, you might have seen playwright/author Alfian Sa’at’s constant, cheeky flirtations with sensitive issues in Singapore. For example, his Photoshop creations of humorous political images, acerbic comments on Ministers’ Facebook pages causing him to be banned therefrom, or his now-viral May 2013 application for a permit to hold a one-man assembly, consisting of himself holding a placard declaring his supposed support for the People’s Action Party (PAP) on Orchard Road. A memorable quote (in answer to the form’s question on whether there would be entertainment provided during the event): ‘This is quite a serious event. There is nothing entertaining about the PAP.’ Way before the 35-year-old was hailed by some as Singapore’s top internet troll, Sa’at has been spreading provocation through more old-fashioned means. This includes publishing a libertarian poetry collection (his first) in 1998 at the age of 21, writing thought-provoking short stories about unconventional topics and, of course, penning plays – all the while collecting international awards and acclaim. Now, W!ld Rice, where Sa’at is a resident playwright, presents an entire festival dedicated to the artist, celebrating his glorious gumption in various ways, including four productions running throughout the festival, as well as a series of workshops exploring the various issues in Sa’at’s work. Among the performances are notable Sa’at works staged in the past, including Asian Boys Vol I, a no-holdsbarred history of homosexual men in Singapore. It was originally performed in 2000 as one of the first queer theatre pieces in Singapore, rousing conservative horror and critical delight. ‘This restaging is pressing,’ says actor Tan Shou Chen, who previously starred in Vol 2 and plays a central role in this reprise. ‘The current socio-political climate may appear to be more gay-friendly, but homosexuality is still a criminal offense, receiving a one-sided portrayal in mainstream media in Singapore. Suppression and oppression are still largely condoned, or at least ignored, by the general public as well.’ Running during the second week of the festival is Sa’at’s 2001 piece The Optic Trilogy, a lyrical trio of encounters between a man and a woman – played here by Brendon Fernandez and actress/Nominated Minister for Parliament Janice Koh – which has since been translated and performed throughout Europe. It’s as much about the disappearance of individuals in a progress-obsessed society as it is a play about love: ‘It somehow manages to expose the everyday tragedies of living in Singapore, while at the same time conveying a profound sense of beauty,’ says a thoughtful Fernandez. ‘The themes are still very relevant: There’s a line about theatres being built in Singapore to stage big musicals for tourists. Look at Resorts World and MBS, which bring in international acts and have been – so far at least – off-limits to local artists.’ The festival also features three free performances of Sa’at’s sold-out 2012 docu-play Cooling Off Day, based on interviews with local residents about political and social issues in the run-up to the 2011 General Election and reuniting original cast members Neo Swee Lin, Jo Kukathas, Janice Koh, Rodney Oliviero, Najib Soiman and Peter Sau. On top of that, there’s the premiere of a brand new work Cook a Pot of Curry – the centrepiece of the festival – which follows a similar structure based on interviews with people off the street about the hot-button issue of Singapore’s huge immigration influx and foreign workers, with the transcripts performed by a cast of six. ‘We had to personally do interviews with a varied demographic,’ explains stage/screen host/actress Judee Tan, one of the six-member ensemble. ‘I interviewed one ang moh [Caucasian], one Filipino, a girl from China and also Malaysians and Singaporeans. We asked the foreigners – how do you feel coming to Singapore? Do you feel integrated?’ It’s a thought-provoking work touching on a typically hot-button topic Sa’at is known for tackling. Even before its performance, this show has made people think. Says cast member (and local stand-up comic) Rishi Budhrani, ‘I don’t think about immigration affecting me, except – and this may sound a little odd – it’s all material for me as a comic. Like when I eat Indian food at Little India, and a Chinese dude is making the naans. Nothing wrong with that, except it’s not exactly an authentic brand experience, you know? But I think Alfian won’t let anyone off the hook; [he] forces you to think. He challenges your views and makes you take a stand.’ Shou Chen agrees, laughing, ‘Alfian and I have been friends for too long, since 2003, when I met him in the audition room for Asian Boys Vol 2. He’s truly someone who believes the personal is political, which I think makes for the most effective and admirable type of activist, even when he’s an internet troll – beware his Photoshop skills!’ He adds more seriously, ‘That also means I’ve scolded him for doing stupid things that could get him in trouble when there were alternatives. I’ve definitely been worried for his safety.’ Indeed, Sa’at had previously been dismissed from a teaching position, allegedly for being outspoken about homosexual issues. He’s also been followed and filmed at demonstrations by suspected undercover policemen. Yet, no one has asked Sa’at to stop speaking out. Says Fernandez: ‘His work has had an impact. He’s at least introduced issues to the public consciousness. Whether someone prefers Facebook, a book or a play, he allows this person to see these issues, experience them vicariously and feel something about them. That’s what an artist does.’ This month, experience Sa’at for yourself and see. 

Alfian Sa’at: In The Spotlight is at Lasalle from 3-20 July. See www. wildrice.com.sg for schedule.

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