Antares salutes the theatrical triumph of Mark Beau de Silva’s STORIES FOR AMAH
No one – except perhaps for his ex-policeman father who was in the audience – was gladder than I for Mark Beau de Silva at the end of Stories for Amah, the prolific 23-year-old’s third play within the space of a year. This time around what we got was a soul-satisfying serving of highly palatable Malaysian theater – thanks to a superb cast and the very capable direction of Joe Hasham, who seemed particularly pleased with how it all turned out. Hasham’s confident hand and mature directorial vision were precisely what was needed to shape the material into a seamless, smooth-flowing dramatic whole.
The text was written mostly in Manglish with a liberal smattering of Hokkien (the dialect Mark grew up speaking with his maternal grandmother, fondly addressed as Amah). Although the protagonist was a Chinese Eurasian girl named Ruth de Souza, it was fairly obvious that the play was largely based on the playwright’s own experience of growing up as a “lain-lain” – which is how Malaysian bureaucracy classifies those not of Malay, Chinese, or Indian ethnicity.
What came across most poignantly was the innocence and honesty of the narrative – and for this we have to thank and applaud the consummate performance of Mew Chang Tsing as Ruth. Dancer-choreographer Mew (who is artistic director of Rivergrass Dance Theatre) brought to her pivotal rôle a freshness, purity, and angelic charisma that effectively stole the audience’s heart right from the start.
It would have been so easy for her to have milked the script for melodrama and pathos, but her dancer’s intuition, sensitivity, and perfect control kept the tears and laughter authentic, and touched us all to the core.
Mew was beautifully supported by the rest of the cast, who each contributed generously to the overall organicity of the stories as they unfolded. Every single one of them was memorably true to character, a sure sign that the casting was exceptionally well considered.
Merissa Teh was sublime as Mama (even if it took a major stretch of imagination to picture her “lying in front of the TV like some fat pig” in view of her slender and winsome appeal). Kennedy John Michael’s Papa was solidly archetypal and testosterone-charged; his portrayal of patriarchal ire is guaranteed to make anyone allergic to mathematics, or at least despotic father figures. Sabera Shaik was in fine comic fettle as Aunty Liza and the Headmistress; and Ben Tan’s cool versatility as the afro-wigged Uncle Zack and a whole slew of other male characters was indeed masterful.
Low Ngai Yuen’s down-to-earth Aunty Sien was well crafted and credible, while the young boys Andrew and James (winningly portrayed by Carina Ong and Juliana Ibrahim) were a delight to watch. But most heartwarming of all was Karen Chin’s magnificent Amah, who spends most of the play sitting silent and attentive – and totally in character – behind a translucent (and not very flattering) portrait of herself.
This was a particularly brilliant example of psychodynamic synergy when the whole cast and crew – including the lighting, sound, and production design team – seems to have set aside petty ego issues and devoted itself unstintingly to the success of the production. Something like this happens only rarely and spontaneously, when the raw material they’re working with comes from the heart, and everyone is inspired to do likewise.
With perfect marksmanship, the fragments of childhood reminiscences that constitute Stories for Amah hit home every time. Mark Beau declares in his playwright’s notes that this is his “first play derived from personal experiences.” Nothing is more powerful than home truths, and what makes the play work so well isn’t the beauty of the language (which doesn’t for a moment pretend at sophistication), but the simplicity and truthfulness of the sensitive child’s voice he has dredged from memory. We all know that only innocence can publicly remark on the Emperor’s nakedness with impunity.
In a brief and graphic classroom scene where the Cikgu (teacher) takes time out to record the racial breakdown of the students, the play says all that can be said about how the seeds of bigotry are planted without having to say anything at all. The scenes of domestic tension and violence are minimalistic and stark – but they strike a universal chord. No blame is intended, only understanding and reconciliation.
In the end all the hurt and humiliation, the disputes and the despair, the sorrow and suffering, are dissolved and resolved in Ruth’s recognition of the unbreakable familial bond personified by the benignity and magnanimity of her beloved Amah. The triumphant and uplifting corollary of it all would have to be: it’s never too late to tell someone you truly love them because that simple act redeems the apparent meaninglessness of our lives and reconnects us to our core selves.
One may be tempted to compare Stories for Amah with Jit Murad’s widely acclaimed recent play, Spilt Gravy On Rice which, by way of contrast, celebrated a wise and loving Bapak. But the most significant difference, of course, is that Jit Murad is a well-seasoned literary and theatrical talent, who has acquired the technical chops it takes to turn out complex and jazzy dramatic fugues with elegant tragicomic counterpoints – while de Silva, who’s only just beginning his career as a bona fide Malaysian playwright, can at least boast that he has secured for himself a warm spot in everyone’s heart simply by rendering a well-remembered nursery tune with the full force of his sincere soul.
24 November 2002
[I’m happy to report that Mark Beau de Silva’s Stories for Amah received 5 nominations at the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards 2002 for Best Original Script, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Set Design, and Best Lighting Design.]