Who's There?

by The Transit Ensemble
New Ohio Theatre
Ice Factory 2020

This Zoom production, co-directed by New York-based Singaporean artist Sim Yan Ying and veteran theatre maker Alvin Tan as part of collective The Transit Ensemble, tackles issues of race and privilege with uncompromising frankness and extraordinary insight. It forms part of the New Ohio Theatre's all-digital Ice Factory summer festival.

Comprising an ensemble cast hailing from Singapore, Malaysia and the US, we are presented with scenes featuring a spectrum of diverse characters. These include a no-nonsense African-American activist (Camille Thomas), a peace-making white gay saviour (Neil Redfield), a pragmatic Malaysian bureaucrat (Ghafir Akbar), a Chinese Singaporean social justice warrior (Sim Yan Ying), an Indian-Singaporean teacher (Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai) and an ethically ambiguous US-based political podcaster (Sean Devare). 

Through these interactions, we gain an insight into cross-cultural collisions and tensions on both continents. A black student feels uneasy in Malaysia due to flagrant stereotypes about colourism that plague the national discourse. A Singaporean activist contrasts her position of privilege as an ethnic Chinese in her home country versus her status as a disenfranchised immigrant in the US. The lines between who exactly is the oppressor and who is the oppressed become increasingly murky once we see things from both sides of the equation and realise the racial biases and assumptions in our everyday lives.

There's no denying how topical these themes are. Who's there? comes hot on the heels of the George Floyd protests and a renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. The issue of systemic racism is likewise seen in Asia through Chinese privilege in Singapore and the bumiputera policy in Malaysia, leaving ethnic minorities bristling with anger and disillusionment.

Directors Sim and Tan work with the cast and dramaturgs Cheng Nien Yuan and J.Ed Araiza to craft scenes that are punchy, provocative and painfully honest. There is a genuine attempt to convey the delicate racial and power dynamics of each country through ‘crash culture’ transition videos and draw audiences in through elements of interaction. Scenes are interspersed by polls where we are called upon to answer questions about race and power politics with the results being displayed in real time.

The ensemble cast turn in strong performances and make effective use of their individual homes and Zoom backgrounds to navigate each scene. The action is augmented by a creative use of technology as they navigate different social media formats such as Instagram live-streams, FaceTime calls and YouTube videos. On the technical front, Who's there? is rounded out by strong multimedia and sound design by Jevon Chandra and Jay Ong respectively. 

However, the production packs in far too much material and could benefit from some editing. One can feel rather overwhelmed at the sheer volume of information being presented in rapid succession over the run time of ninety-five minutes. A montage of three women exploring their identity through the use of filters is poignant but sits uneasily with the more direct scenes featuring interactions between characters. Likewise, a closing coda featuring six individuals trying to air their views on racial politics understand one another tends to outstay its welcome.

Who's there? is an urgent and timely piece of theatre that seeks to interrogate the existing  power structures within our society and critically examine who exactly is the 'other'. It forces us to confront our own prejudices and work together to create a better world for all. 

I discuss this production in more detail in the Arts Equator theatre podcast, together with playwright, poet and editor Nabilah Said and theatre educator Matthew Lyon.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5


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