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Review: 'Ayer Hitam - A Black History of Singapore'

by Kiran Bhat

 
"The truth is, Singapore’s colonial history rises directly out of the legacy of African slavery"
Photo: BlackNet Singapore


The shaky island of Singapore. The wind tussles against the waves of the palm trees, only to smack shut against the skyscrapers.


It’s a city where conformity talks and capitalism walks. It’s full of energy, it’s clearly multicultural; but at the heart of it is not the manic infinitude of a New York or a Mumbai.


I’ve been to Singapore several times in my life, twice as a child, twice as an adult. There’s something exciting about the city, something endearing about the city, but there’s also something lifeless, something stifling. People say that Singapore is a commercial city with little to offer to the adventurer, but I disagree. I think that the local pockets of the city are full of flavor, and that unique mix of Malay-Chinese-Tamil history makes Singapore a cosmopolitan city with a very different racial heritage compared to its counter-parts. What makes the city lose its potential edge has less to do with the endless lanes of malls and office buildings, and more to do with the separations innate in Singapore’s inception and the history from which those demarcations lie.


We can talk about British colonialism, we can talk about governance, we can talk about the conflicts between the Chinese and the Tamils and the Malays. But this is first and foremost an art review, on a play written by the LGBTQI poet, essayist, and playwright Ng Yi-Sheng.

One merely has to skim the plays in the anthology Black Water, Pink Sands to observe that exclusion is a constant narrative in the life of a minority in Singapore. The play Desert Blooms functions almost as an anthology of all of the ways that one can be excluded in Singaporean life.


Structured almost as an interview series, playwrights, artists, and activists shout their experiences outward, ask questions either directly to each other or to the audience, play to each other, but often speak to the mire. Narratives in boxes interrupt the discourse. For example, the playwright G Selvanathan is telling the story of ‘walking in Serangoon Road, near Desker Road area [when someone asks] “Why you wouldn’t want to do a drama about people like us?” [prompting him to stage a play to speak to the] scope … pain, and various points of view of how the community sees transgenders and gays in our conversation.’



A box then comes to the page, written in Tamil:



‘கூடபிறந்தவர்களே என்னை ஒதுக்கிய பிறகு, வேறு எதற்காக நான் வாழ

வேண்டும். மேலும் அப்ப நான் அனுபவித்த துன்பங்கள், நிம்மதி

இல்லாமை, குழப்பம் அனைத்தும் சேர்ந்து, என் வாழ்க்கையை

மாற்றியது.’


This translates to:

‘When my own siblings ostracised me, for what else should I live? Furthermore, the pain that I experienced then, the lack of peace, the confusion, all together, they changed my life.’

Kamani tells the story ‘Kaman became Kamani. [She] worked. Did the operation.’ The interconnecting of the back-and-forth between artists and boxed-in narratives of Singapore’s subaltern has several affects. It contrasts the somewhat stiff voices of the professionals with much rawer and crackling narratives, giving a much stronger human sensation to the subtexts of the play. It also creates a multiplicity beyond the premise of the text.


This is not just a space to complain about Singapore’s relationships to its minorities, it’s also a space to give voice to the people who are largely on the fringe. The choir of voices largely works. Desert Blooms feels almost like a kaleidoscope of a hundred small narratives, tied together by being queer, Singaporean, coming together, to froth at the mouth and creates blossoms out of their suffering.


"By all means, let our ‘cultural desert’ bloom. But please let the blossoms be beautiful and

wholesome and not be prickly pears or weeds."

 

Related: We want it all - fighting for disability rights on stage

 

If Desert Blooms is a reflection on what it means to be queer in Singapore, the play Hitam: a Black History of Singapore is, well… a narrative on the black history of Singapore.


While the population of African or African origin people is still extremely low in Singapore, somewhere under 3 percent, any and all minorities deserve to be visible in their country, and so Sheng has taken this task under his own belt. The play is designed to be as much educational as it is performance.

Actress Sharon Frese (Photo: Irfan Kasban)