by Johnny Jon Jon
Teater Ekamatra
Malay Heritage Centre Theatre, Singapore

Johnny Jon Jon's characters are difficult to forget. The playwright's debut work Hawa, which premiered in 2015 and enjoyed a warm revival at the Singapore Theatre Festival, involved a man who routinely attends the funerals of strangers, using the opportunity to chat up veiled women. This sophomore outing features an equally unique individual: a hijab-wearing female doctor who runs a circumcision clinic, taking rather more pleasure that one would expect in giving her clients a snip to remember.

Teater Ekamatra's first production of their 30th anniversary season is an elegiac four-hander that navigates memory, mothers and manhood with wit and lucidity. 18-year-old mixed-race Adam, who grew up in Perth, travels to Singapore for his national service enlistment. His single mother, Saleha implores him to undergo another equally important rite of passage while there: getting circumsized. Arriving in Singapore, Adam looks up his mother's brother Salleh, only to find out that the latter is a cross-dressing man who goes by his mother's name and lives with Adam's Alzheimer's-ridden grandmother. Meanwhile, Saleha nurses a dark secret of her own: she suffers from early onset dementia. 

As the title suggests, this is a play about severance, both physical and emotional. There is the literal severance of the foreskin in the rite of circumcision. There is the severance of familial ties with the teenage Saleha eloping to Australia with a white man to the chagrin of her mother. Perhaps most powerfully, there is the severance of memory itself. Salleh 'becomes' his sister as a way of being accepted by his mother, feeding into her memory of the cherished daughter who abandoned her and erasing his own identity as an act of love. Saleha is keen to hide her condition from Adam for as long as she can, hoping to spare him the pain of being forgotten.

Jon Jon displays a knack for wordplay and skirts round cherished religious traditions with a cheeky eye. From the outset, the script is littered with catchy one-liners and puns. "Are you telling me all that stands between me and being a man is a rifle and my foreskin?", Adam demands of his mother in the first scene. The comedy is a welcome respite from the difficult, often painful themes that claw at our emotions.

Photo Credit: Teater Ekamatra

There are wonderful performances across the board. Salif Hardie believably conveys the frustrations of Adam, a young man faced with religious traditions he does not comprehend and a family full of secrets. Farah Ong shines in an understated dual role as Saleha and the latter's mother, both women coping with loss and fading memories. And Mohd Fared Jainal is terrific as Salleh, a man whose steadfastness in his religion and devotion to his family remain unaffected by his colourful personal life. 

Rounding out the cast is Munah Bagharib as Dini, the doctor running a circumcision clinic in Singapore whom Adam visits. Dini is perhaps the most bizarre addition to the narrative and while Munah has a lot of fun with the character and her oddball sense of humour, the inclusion of this outsider in an otherwise taut family drama is slightly incongruous. The friendship that develops between her and Salleh feels somewhat contrived and one struggles to believe that she would choose to visit the house for a prayer simply after having met him once or twice.

Photo Credit: Teater Ekamatra

Director Irfan Kasban gently teases out the comedy from Jon Jon's script, never allowing things to descend into broad caricature. His scenes are beautifully measured, allowing for a patina of sadness to hover in the background yet never overwhelming the emotions. 

Irfan's ability to manipulate space has always impressed. He has set plays in a glass box (W.C.), presented monologues in an intimate theatre-in-a-round staging (94:05) and even created evocative performance-installations within the confines of a historical site (This Placement) In Potong, he collapses physical boundaries so that we see Saleha moving around in her home in Perth while Adam and Salleh appear in the very next room. The sight of the two siblings on the phone, standing just feet away from each other even though they are in fact on separate continents, is particularly powerful. 

Potong is a mature, confident piece by a talented playwright who has a real knack for writing for the stage and uncovering smaller stories that exist at the fringes of society. While the pain of dementia is a powerful presence, this is ultimately a play about the enduring power of love and its ability to help us move on.  

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5


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