Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar is, without a doubt, a force to be reckoned with in the Malaysian media landscape and literary world.
The former chairman of Media Prima Berhad and Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka (DBP) has – since the early 1970s – penned short stories, poems, novels and plays, many of which have become part of the country’s literary collection.
Now, after a 14-year hiatus from writing, the Johor-born author/playwright, who is part of the renowned Anak Alam arts collective, is creating a buzz again with his latest theatre offering called Pokok, which plays at the DBP Auditorium in Kuala Lumpur, starting Dec 7.
If you recall, Johan’s last published work in theatre called Asiah Samiah won the Hadiah Sastera Perdana in 2003.
Johan’s Pokok, a three-act play was published in DBP’s Dewan Sastera magazine last year and now, the multi-layered script has been picked up for its stage debut next month by theatre production company Balang Rimbun.
Pokok, directed by award-winning filmmaker U-Wei Saari, is already one of the most talk-about theatre shows this year and its run at the DBP Auditorium is keenly anticipated among local theatre enthusiasts.
The staging of Pokok is supported by DBP, Perodua, National Department for Culture and Arts (JKKN) and Institut Terjemahan Dan Buku Malaysia (ITBM).
This collaboration marks a first for Johan, 65, and U-Wei, 64, who have never worked together before.
The play features prominent movie and TV actors such as Haliza Misbun, Ebby Saiful, Rahim Jailani and Buyung Zasdar.
“When I found out that Pokok was Johan’s latest work, I was very curious. And when I read it, I was totally impressed,” says U-Wei at a recent launch event for Pokok in KL.
The director isn’t concerned that Johan has not written in several years.
“It is very clear that the surface (of the script) is simple but the (dialogue) is rich in texture and meaningful. I felt challenged. Then I remembered what my late wife told me, ‘Good literature is literature that thinks.’ That made up my mind that I had to be part of this play,” he adds.
U-Wei’s last directorial theatre stint was in 2006 for Wangi Jadi Saksi, which played the then newly-opened DBP Auditorium. It featured an all-star cast, including Vanidah Imran, Khir Rahman and the late Khalid Salleh.
The Pahang-born director is well known for his thought-provoking movies, with Hanyut (2016), based on a novel Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad, being his last cinema outing.
Pokok, says U-Wei, is a story with roots that run deep. He also believes the play is very relevant and contemporary.
“There are many ways you can interpret the play. If someone is political, then they will see the pokok as a system and if the person is spiritual, they will see the pokok as iman or faith,” he explains.
In calling Pokok a story of humanity, Johan, whose other plays include Angin Kering (1981), Arah Ke Mara (1984) and Hari-Hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman (1984), which he adapted from Anwar Ridhwan’s novel, says the play is a reflection of life with all its trials and tribulations.
“More importantly, it’s a story of love. It’s one of those love stories that you wouldn’t think is possible but it did happen,” says Johan.
In Pokok, actress Haliza plays Mardiah, Ebby plays Darwis, Rahim takes on the Tuk Kaya role and Buyung plays Amud.
As any intuitive and perceptive writer would, Johan, who was actively involved in Kumpulan Kesenian Universiti Malaya in the late 1970s, drew inspiration for Pokok from a chance encounter with a woman in the 1990s.
She was a waitress at a bar, he recalls, and she was an ex-convict and her fascinating life story became the inspiration for his upcoming play.
“Darwis is an amputee and feels insecure and Mardiah is a drug addict and an ex-convict. They find happiness in each other. They are each others’ salvation,” says Johan.
On stage, Pokok centres around husband and wife pair Darwis and Mardiah.
They live in a ramshackle house, which sits directly under an old, towering tree. While the tree acts as a protector to the couple, it also poses a threat with its breaking boughs. Adding to their complication is Tuk Kaya, Darwis’s rich employer who uses his wealth to try and win Mardiah’s heart.
With a baby on the way, Darwis realises that their home is not fit for his family and slowly realises, it is he who must make a big sacrifice.