Thick Beats for Good Girls

by Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy
Checkpoint Theatre
Drama Centre Black Box, Singapore

​Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy strike one as a bit of an odd couple. The former is a Singaporean-Indian poet and spoken word artist while the latter is an Australian-Jewish playwright and theatre-maker based in Sydney. Yet what unites these two women from separate continents and cultures is an unabashed love for hip hop, a fact which they celebrate in this bold, brassy confessional.

If Checkpoint's last production, Frago, was a wistful meditation on masculinity, this is its offbeat sibling: a loud, unapologetic anthem to womanhood. Through a series of colourful vignettes, the duo seek to reconcile their identity as "good girls" with the soul-thumping "thick beats" of artists such as Jay Z, Kanye West, Nelly and Nicky Minaj.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan (courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre)

We learn of Bellamy’s wholesome, Jewish upbringing and first taste of naughtiness through an erotic book stashed under her bed. Nansi describes her frustration at having to play the part of the perfect immigrant daughter, an image that did not sit easily with her sassy taste in music. Yet, it is this very music - earthy, effusive and explicit - that allows each woman to embrace her identity and accept herself for who she is.

Directed and dramaturged by Huzir Sulaiman, Thick Beats takes the format of a performance-lecture, with each actor presenting beautifully rendered monologues in turn. The polished, poetic style is a hallmark of many Checkpoint productions but for all its chutzpah, one cannot shake off the sense that the whole affair is rather conservative.

Opening remarks describing the roots of hip hop in New York’s South Bronx in the 1970s are akin to a Wikipedia post being read aloud and much of the text is structured like a essay, neatly checking off themes such as childish rebellion, adult liberation and famous artists of the genre. This is a show which should thrive in its very zaniness and grab one by the gut, much like the electrifying music that is its subject. Instead, it comes across as a somewhat sedate, academic encounter.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan (courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre)

The actors are confident and supremely engaging performers who light up the stage with their chemistry. Bellamy has a knack for comedy, getting huge laughs as she describes a liberating holiday in Ireland where she embarks on a kissing spree with strangers in a pub. She makes wonderful use of her childhood to expose the hypocrisy of religion, highlighting how she always had to apologise for parts of herself as a Jew, something which she does not have to do with music.

Nansi is electric in her spoken word segments, recounting a night of wild clubbing with a quiet ferocity that has the audience utterly rapt. Yet, I wish she had plumbed a little deeper into her personal history instead of aiming for largely sex and spectacle; one cannot help but recall her heartfelt solo show on cultural identity, You Are Here, and how some of those simpler, subtle stories would have resonated here.

The two women are quick to admit that their choice of music is not without controversy; as much as they advocate being true to themselves and celebrating their identity through hip hop, the fact remains that a lot of the songs they are so keen to chant are rude, misogynistic and objectify women. Can a woman be a fan of hip hop and still consider herself a feminist? It's a question they do not have a ready answer to.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan (courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre)

Petrina Dawn Tan's set is a simple mix of quirky squiggles and illuminated cubes, a literal reference to the thick beats that define these women's lives and how this can exist even within a world of order. Music is also very naturally integrated into the narrative; catchy tunes allowing scenes to naturally segue into each other and providing a constant aural canvas to ground the text. 

Thick Beats is a bold, funny and uplifting performance about music and its ability to shape one's soul. At its heart, this is a show that encourages us to turn up the volume of our lives and embrace who we really are, in all its colourful glory. 

The Crystalwords score: 3/5


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