PETALING JAYA: An ungrateful son turned to stone by his heartbroken mother. A comparison of history textbooks to uncover the erasures, exclusions and questions surrounding the Malayan Emergency. And two dancers attempting to reclaim their freedom and identity as Malaysian Chinese women.
For Mark Teh and June Tan, these are only a few of the many narratives that local plays and performances explore in Malaysia’s diverse theatre and performing arts scene.
Teh and Tan, both a part of Five Arts Centre, a collective of local artists, activists and producers, believe that theatre is an art form to encourage empathy and understanding through the telling of alternative and marginal stories.
Citing a theatre play he recently directed titled ‘A Notional History’, Teh said it was important to tell inclusive stories that validate and narrate a person’s experience without disregarding, silencing or erasing someone else’s experience.
“How do you tell a story without erasing someone else’s story?” he asked, referencing a line from the performance.
In ‘A Notional History’, Form 4 history textbooks published after the 2018 general election, are compared to older versions. This period was of great interest to Teh as it marked Barisan Nasional’s fall from power after governing the country for over 60 years.
Teh said he was interested in determining what changed between the textbooks, what remained unchanged and what elements of Malaysia’s history were unchangeable.
The performance also included decades-old interview footage of members of the outlawed Malayan Communist Party. This, Teh said, was to ensure that those who were largely excluded from that period of the country’s history could convey their experiences.
Tan, a producer and stage manager, said the public must continue to show a curiosity for others and an openness to experiences different from their own.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of alternative narratives or fear shifting our own opinions and perceptions having seen all these alternative narratives,” she told FMT. “Even if we don’t agree with these narratives, at least we have the necessary information to understand them.”
She said Malaysians are accustomed to difference and diversity as it is a country teeming with various cultures and ethnicities.
Actor, director and writer Jo Kukathas expressed her confidence that Malaysian theatre could continue to be an avenue for open expression, differing opinions, tolerance, empathy and understanding.
“Most people in the arts are trying to tell minority stories that aren’t often heard, which is important because when you hear your story reflected back, it’s very powerful.”
She said arts and culture were constantly evolving and theatre was no different, adding that playwrights always try to respond to the changing face of the country.
‘And Then Came Spring’, a play Kukathas co-directed with Saleh Sepas of Parastoo Theatre earlier this year, is reflective of this.
It tells the tale of a 14-year-old Afghan girl, Nazanin, who dreams of going to school but is sold off by her father to settle his debts. Nazanin then finds herself married to a man twice her age and is soon with child.
Kukathas’ theatre company, Instant Café, collaborated with Parastoo Theatre, a troupe of Afghan refugees in Kuala Lumpur, to stage the play.
“I wanted Instant Café to do this collaboration because there are a lot of new migrants in Malaysia now and refugees speaking different languages.
“There was so much xenophobia during the pandemic, I felt we should listen to their stories and why these refugees ended up in Malaysia rather than just being suspicious of them and unaware of their humanity,” she said.
Kukathas urged audiences to watch plays about lives and experiences different from their own in order to be challenged and to expand their perceptions.
“The purpose of art is to destabilise, not to maintain the status quo,” she said.