Recently I had the opportunity to attend my first ever play: an Esplanade Commission titled Anak which is a rewrite of the play Anak Melayu by Very Shy Gurl's Artistic Director Noor Effendy Ibrahim from 1992.
Truth be told, I was not aware of the play's history (including the staging of it by Teater Kami back in 2019) owing to my lack of exposure to the local arts scene, and upon doing some reading up I had formed this vague image of a play strewn with controversy over its content and language. Granted, it was 30 years ago when it first came out and the social climate then would definitely have shaped its criticisms. Come show day, I had forgotten almost everything I remembered about the play and was essentially going in blind (curse you, humanoid goldfish memory).
8pm, Saturday night. At the Outdoor Amphitheatre there was a showcase of traditional Malay music ongoing which I took in from the garden rooftop along with a friend who was accompanying me in watching the play before I entered the theatre studio, and I suppose it was happenstance that the soundtrack of the night was quintessentially Malay.
One musician each at either side of the stage provided the score for our entrance as the doors opened. We were greeted with the sight of six figures, each in their respective states their characters commanded. The occasional howls and loud slaps to the flesh pierced the soundscape, making the search for our seats that much more uncomfortable. We eventually settled on our third attempt as the lights dimmed, the audience's gaze firmly affixed to the stage and its actors. Ape siak yang aku nak tengok ni?
Johari (Joe in short, played by Ali Mazrin) started off the play in perhaps the most jarring way possible, fresh from beating Fuad (Al Hafiz Sanusi) who is personified as a docile humanoid dog of sorts, and the perennial whipping boy throughout the play. We are soon introduced to Shalawati (Wati in short, Shafiqhah Efandi) and Hayati (Yati in short, Farah Lola), whose interactions with Joe involve skewed power dynamics; Yati with a symbiotic need for Joe's approval and Wati a dissident to Joe's hypermasculinity (a trait exemplified in the Malay community through the term "anak jantan" or real man). Soon Khaizal (Saifuddin Jumadi) and Norliza (Liza in short, Rusydina Afiqah) insert themselves into the narrative as an fatherless dancer and the mother of a child who breaks the fourth wall to mock those who bear witness to her suffering respectively.
As the play progressed I was angry, irate, bemused, bewildered, surprised, shocked, strangely entranced, and a whole spectrum of emotions I could not adequately convey. The rokok as a metaphor for member, the joget an allegory to a forbidden dance with the opposite sex, the scenes in the shower, the jarring imagery of a child smashed and consumed; the disjointed narrative structure of it all added an element of confusion to an already bloated experience but there was just something mystifying about it that I could not shake off, come curtains. I began to realise the significance of this play on my psyche only after I had left the theatre.
Unpacking one of the emotions I felt, the anger that festered in me after every word spoken by Joe was a testament to Ali's amazing performance. Joe was a manifestation of everything I detested in my years growing up, men who spoke only in harsh tones and fists. The interchange of dialogue between proper Malay and bahasa kasar was a triumph, a bridge to a world often inaccessible for those blessed with unwilling blindness. Where archaic references to Malay society's perceived ills were concerned (the overarching theme of cigarettes and pre-marital sex for example), they were skillfully welded into deft wordplay fit for digestion in this time and age.
I began to see contrasts between the work and an essay by Siti Hazirah Mohamad from the book Budi Kritik titled "Stereotyping of Malay Youths Unveils A Persistent Refusal To Acknowledge Structural Dimensions To Inequality" in which she unpacked the stereotypes of Malay youth through interviews with television personnel behind shows like Anak Metropolitan and Hanyut which depicted the "moral collapse" of Malay youths of the time, and Malay youths who were caught in the criminal justice system due to various barriers of inequality. Though set almost a decade apart, the shows themselves had similar overarching themes with the only difference being that Noor Effendy Ibrahim was actually a youth when he wrote his play, lending credence to his vision of it being representative of his rage. It goes without saying of course that in art artists often take liberties to depict their subject matters, but in this case I feel a more genuine cause to relate to Effendy's vision rather than the two television programs because its premise was not based on presumptuous moral policing but rather a mirror into this world without any filters.
In the world of Anak, there is no mourning of innocence lost. To lose one's innocence is a prerequisite for inhabiting this world; its stark incongruity both an offence and a treatise on the state of Malay youths yesterday and today.
In the play, there was a scene in which Liza sang a stirring rendition of an obscure song titled Demi Cinta as a lullaby to the child which perfectly bookends Anak; a labour of love whose passage over the years has not made it less harder to mourn.
"Demi cinta kasih yang aku dambakan
Kini ku ucapkan pada-mu yang ku sayang
Selamat tinggal, selamat bahagia kepada-mu"
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