Actors breathe new life into Usman Awang's classics


  • Arts
  • Thursday, 25 Jul 2019

I recently promised a friend that I would watch his directorial debut, which was one of several short skits making up the performance Don’t Let Usman Awang Know at Pentas 2, KLPac, on July 13.

With so much happening over the weekend I almost gave it a miss but, thankfully, I pushed myself and I am so glad that I made the effort because it was a really enjoyable experience.

Muka Space, in collaboration with The Actors Studio’s Seni Teater Rakyat, first started the Don’t Let ... Know series as a way to provide fresh content and contemporary interpretations of well-loved classics by emerging and established directors.

The series was kickstarted by Don’t Let Shakespeare Know as part of The Actors Studio’s Shakespeare 400 season with seven short plays by seven directors.

The short play format was so well-received that plans were quickly made for a second and third instalment of the series, according to producer Easee Gan.

Though it’s been around since 2016, I have never gone for a Don’t Let ... Know performance before. This was my first brush with it.

The show I attended on July 13 was a tribute to renowned poet/playwright and novelist Datuk Usman Awang. Usman’s works often explored the themes of love, friendship, racial harmony and social injustice – all of which were fleshed out in some form or other in these short skits.

There were seven plays in all, and what was great about them is that they featured fresh faces, at times even picked from the crowd.

These young directors, actors, dancers and musicians were enthusiastic in their desire to share their talents, and they did such a great job of entertaining the audience.

Giant Liang Ka En’s Calling 1969 (inspired by Usman’s poem Kambing Hitam) was unique in its method of focusing on individual accounts of the May 13, 1969 racial riots, which were elevated when read by unassuming members of the audience.

I was thoroughly intrigued by the look and feel of Mon Lim’s Guru Oh Guru (Usman’s tribute poem to teachers), which looked like something out of a manga.

Gan’s Udara (based on the well-known musical drama Uda Dan Dara), which was brought to life poignantly by Tan Li Yang, Ruby Faye, some pretty nifty lighting and sound effects, took my breath away.

Apple Yong’s musical Trapped (after Usman’s book Jiwa Hamba), featuring four people trapped in their jobs, was wonderfully artfully choreographed. It reminded me how I once felt, forced to compete in the rat race.

Zheng Xi Yong’s Pisang Goreng, a musical duologue adapted from the poem Penjual Air Batu, seemed over the top but gave its actors a chance to ham it up in a play that explored the weighty issue of the unfairness of our country’s laws and the plight of those in the lower socioeconomic bracket.

The dancers and musicians in Almari: Perjuangan and Kekasih (based on the poems Pahlawan & Tanahair, Gadis Di Kuburan and Kekasih) were also inspiring to watch in action.

To Gan, who’s been around from day one of the series, Don’t Let ... Know is like a celebration that brings the community together.

First, they revived interest in age-old classics and showed how these works could still be accessible and relevant to audiences today. Moving forward this year, they have another show, Don’t Let Joe & Faridah Know, in November (referring to The Actors Studio founders and theatre royalty Joe Hasham and Faridah Merican).

For those who think theatre is too “atas” (highbrow) for them, I really want to encourage you to give this series a shot. The seven short plays mechanism is really one that is easy to digest and gives you a bird’s eye view of the fresh, young and innovative talent we have here in Malaysia.

It’s such a darn shame that these incredibly talented bunch of performers who are striving so hard for their art are not afforded more support.

In fact, it has been an ongoing problem for theatre in this country from as far back as 30 years ago – that more people don’t see its value and encourage the arts; that funding and government support is so sparse for something which continues – against the odds – to uplift and edify people from all walks of life through language and culture and which promotes diversity and equality.

You really have to give kudos to the likes of The Actors Studio and Muka Space (and the many other theatre groups in the country that have been tirelessly championing this cause) for providing a platform for young actors to do this, and for educating society about our literary heritage.

With the Usman Awang show, it was wonderful to see so many young people, on stage and in the audience, being exposed to the illustrious works of our National Laureate. What better way to honour his legacy?

Do your bit for Malaysian theatre, go to The Actors Studio to check out what other interesting performances are of offer – and make sure to catch Don’t Let Joe & Faridah Know in November.


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