In September 2018, two women in Terengganu were publicly caned by Malaysian prison officers after pleading guilty to a charge of having same-sex relations. This case attracted a lot of attention since it was believed to be the first time something like this had happened here.
When the news reached local actor and director Tung Jit Yang, he reacted with disbelief. He gathered a group of other performing acts practitioners and he developed To Which My Brother Laughed, a new devised work in response to this caning issue.
“I was very taken by this case. Was this really Malaysia Baru? Or was this a response to Malaysia Baru? Are we disappointed? I don’t know. This show is not an attempt to unpack or solve these problems. But it is to delve deep into these complexities and perhaps provoke some kind of debate or discussion,” says Tung in a recent interview in KL.
To Which My Brother Laughed, which opens at KLPac on Feb 28, features the talents of Adam Luqman, Anjali Nijjar Venugopal, Belinda Hon, Bella Rahim, Breena Au, Camillea Benjamin, Catherine Leyow, Sharifah Aleysha, Sujatha Doraimanickam and Veshalini Naidu.
For added edge, KL-based activist punk band Shh... Diam!, which includes musicians Azizan Afi, Faris Saad, Yon and Yoyo, will provide a live music soundtrack.
"The band has been with the production since the beginning. They have created new songs and tracks to which the cast and performers perform and move to. We also are featuring two of their already popular songs," says Tung
The band has also written monologues, and shared memories in the form of scenes, some of which the actors speak and tell.
"The band has been an integral part of the devising process and also important part of the show. I can say that the band and their music acts as a kind of adhesive, and also undercurrent of the show. They play a big part of the show for sure," he adds.
To Which My Brother Laughed, presented by The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat, is also inspired by the critical essay The Laugh Of The Medusa by French philosopher and writer Helene Cixous.
Tung wants the show to create conversations on difficult topics with a focus on understanding both sides of the issues involved. “The objective is not to place judgement but to inspire empathy and acknowledge one’s capacity for being human,” he says.
Theatre performer/poet Anjali admits the show is focused on a volatile topic. “It’s a spectrum of emotions (for the actors). What we feel about the (caning) case and what we don’t want to feel. What other people would feel. It’s not just anger or sadness,” she says.
Tung adds that the show is very experiential in nature and it is formed mostly from the young cast’s personal stories. One part of it, he notes, will see a comparison of the caning case to a fashion runway. Both situations, after all, involve women on display with certain expectations placed on those involved.
“We’re still piecing things together now. There’s a loose narrative. You could even argue the show is a series of vignettes stretched out to see where the cast could go,” says Tung. “A lot of ourselves are in the work. We start with things like: ‘Where were you when the case happened? What did you feel?’”
True to its unconventional approach, To Which My Brother Laughed is going to be a multidisciplinary theatre affair. From a punk band on stage and a series of poetry performances, this might seem like theatre for millennials.
But the show’s themes cut across the generations. It is universal in content. There are deeply worrying socio-economic issues and gender politics to think about as well as smaller, more intimate stories about friendship, love and trust.
“I’m critical. Will anything we do change anything? But this is what we have. This show is important for the people who made it and for the people who are going to attend,” says Azizan, Shh... Diam!’s drummer.
Tung notes that there will be some open-ended scenes where the audience can reflect on themselves. To him, it is important that there are spaces open for people to talk about real issues.
“When something like this happens it affects the whole community. It affects us. We can’t keep sweeping things under the rug. I know people who when they heard the (caning) news suddenly changed ... all because of fear. In our culture, we don’t talk enough about fear. But through theatre we have a chance to address it,” says Anjali.