IT is rare for a Malaysian play to be part of the New York theatre season. In fact, the last time it happened was 35 years ago when Lee Joo For’s Son of Zen was staged.
In New York, where hundreds of plays are produced every year, it is very difficult for foreign plays to make a breakthrough.
Malaysian playwright Kannan Menon knew it would not be easy but he was encouraged when his play, At A Plank Bridge, received enthusiastic audience response in stage readings in Athens, Ohio and at the United Nations Library auditorium last year.
“I sent the play to about 30 or 40 theatres and in February, the Theatre for the New City (TNC) called me and said they wanted to do it,” he said.
Come Jan 9, At A Plank Bridge will premiere at the TNC, a not-for-profit Pulitzer Prize winning centre for new plays.
The two-man drama, directed by Tina Chen, features Kopitiam star Mano Maniam and Jackson Loo, a second generation Chinese-American in the two-man drama.
The play is set in then Malaya in 1945 on a village road during World War II and the days following the end of the Japanese Occupation.
It’s a chance encounter on a plank bridge of medical orderly Chandran (Mano) and history teacher Fook Leong (Jackson) who fight, talk, trade insults, speak of hatred for the Japanese and offer conflicting views about what’s going to happen in Malaya in the aftermath of the war.
Chandran, who is returning from the Death Railway, appears to prefer a return to stability under British rule while Fook Leong speaks passionately about independence for Malaya.
Kannan is no stranger to the theatre scene back home, having written, directed and acted in plays since he was 18.
“I wanted someone else to direct this play. I wanted to have the experience of working as a writer,” said Kannan, a lawyer with an investment bank here.
He said he was delighted to have Tina direct the play.
“Tina has been wonderful to work with. She is very perceptive, methodical, and knows how to get her point across to people without being confrontational.”
Plank Bridge was actually written for Mano, who was coming to New York after completing his attachment to theatre departments at the San Diego State University in California and the Loyola University in Chicago on a Fullbright Distinguished Artist award, and Chan Meng Lai (stage name Meng Lee), who had been playing the alternate lead role as Engineer in Miss Saigon.
“They were going to be together in New York and I thought I should write something for them, something for a small reading,” said Kannan.
When he started writing, based on his trips to Kanchanaburi in Thailand where the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai was located, the play began to evolve.
“One of the memorial plaques there mentions that hundreds of thousands of Asians also died – besides Australian, British and New Zealander PoWs – while working on the Death Railway.”
When he returned to New York, he began researching and learnt that more than 250,000 Asians from Malaya, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Burma were either recruited by the Japanese or forced to go there with their families.
“The conditions were appalling. The Asians were village people who had no leadership, no one to enforce order and discipline, and no sense of public hygiene. It is estimated that half of the 250,000 Asians died.
“This was a tragic episode in our history that seems to have been forgotten. That was the motive for writing this play.”
Meng Lai will not be involved in the play as he has been cross-cast in another play.
Jackson, who before this knew nothing about Malaysia or the region, said the play was a learning experience.
He said that in any historical and political play, a lot of research had to be done and generally many such plays have a bias toward Western history.
“This play actually looks at a three-week window where the Japanese were on their way out and the British on their way in. There is really no documentation to rely on and so the play serves as a record of this time.
“The play talks about history and what it means to keep that history recorded.
“Hopefully, it will try to document what happened – if not a fictional account, then at least a cultural account.
“A lot of people do not understand Malaysian culture. They see Malays, Chinese and Indians. They don’t understand that they are all Malaysians.
“Even Americans do not understand that Malaysia is also a multi-racial country,” said Jackson, a Yale graduate who works as a PA in a mutual fund company.
Tina came with great credentials as an actor, director and producer, having received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in The Hawains and a nomination for an Emmy Award for her performance in The Final War of Olly Winter.
Her list of performances in films, TV, stage and musicals is impressive, having worked with stars like Robert Redford, Anthony Quinn, Burt Reynolds and Charlton Heston.
Tina, whose father was born in Singapore, said she too was learning a lot. “I was actually researching my family legacy when this play came along.”
She said she was drawn to the play because it was fascinating and well written with a lot of pathos and humour.
“The play is full of nuances and depth. In a short time (an hour and 15 minutes), Kannan is able to tell us the intricacies of that period.”
Mano has been involved in the play since its first reading.
“To get the story out in a stage reading, we had to dramatise the reading. This is a full production and the transition from one to the other is almost like night and day. You get the benefit of all the other inputs from lights to sound, to set and props.
“There is also a big difference in working with a director. The director interprets the vision of the writer.
“In a reading, you get the writer’s vision. In a full production, a director sees things a writer can’t because he is limited by his own vision in telling his own story.
“We are getting an American director for an American audience and we are getting a woman who sees things in a different sort of way – her interpretation of war, her relationship of the two protagonists in the story. I think that strengthens the play.
“Jackson, too, brings a different energy to the play from Meng Lee who was involved in the readings. Meng’s advantage was that as a Malaysian he easily understood the context of the language. Jackson had to work on it, but brings along the energy of a younger person playing that role. So his interpretation is slightly different.”
Mano said this play would be well received in Malaysia, Singapore and even Britain.
“Take away the elements of Malaya 1945, the basic story is the horrors of war and what it does to people, how it mangles human lives and destinies that come out in the two characters.”
There will be 12 shows at the NTC.
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