The standing ovation Jo Kukathas received on opening night was well and truly deserved. Theater – like human existence itself – can be a long, painful struggle punctuated and occasionally redeemed by epiphanies, peak experiences, profound revelations.
Kuali Works’ production of From Table Mountain To Teluk lntan was all of these and more. If only I could convey, without appearing to gush, the exultation, the tears, the laughter, the triumph, the palpable sense of awe and gratitude at having been present at one of those all-too-rare moments when the magic of theater attains to the miraculous. If only I could find the words to express the poignancy of bearing witness to a nightmare ended and a dream fulfilled. Whose dream? What nightmare?
Shahimah (Charmaine) Idris is a Cape Malay who left South Africa in 1981 to seek a less bigoted reality in Australia. There she met and married Malaysian artist Raja Azhar and birthed two lovely children, Norazam and Nadiah. The family moved to Malaysia and opened an art gallery. In 1997 – that ominous year when the Asian tigers lost their roar and we choked and gasped and saw no sky for months on end – a tragic “accident” befell Shahimah in an underground carpark: her spinal cord was badly injured in a knife attack which left her paralyzed from the waist down. Her attacker was never caught, but he was believed to be a bouncer in a nightclub who had once flashed her and been given a public tongue lashing by this fiery, pint-sized “victim.”
It was a brutal act of vengeance motivated by thwarted lust which shattered her life like a tornado from hell. For Shahimah the long, painful struggle to regain physical, psychological and emotional wholeness – fighting off despair, frustration, and the very real fear that she would (as the doctors opined) never walk again, was a private ordeal that could only be ended and transcended by her going public with it.
Shahimah Idris decided to write a critical log of her life’s voyage, hoping to make sense of everything that had happened to her since she arrived on this fascinating but hostile planet. In February 1999, actor-playwright-director Ann Lee began collaborating on a playscript with Shahimah. Along with three others, Lee and Shahimah were founding partners of Kuali Works – an all-women arts company involved in theater, television, publications, seminars and workshops.
Things began falling into place. Jo Kukathas agreed to play Shahimah (called Alia in the story) even before she read the first draft. Australian actor-writer-director Sue Ingleton, who had previously performed and conducted workshops in Kuala Lumpur, was invited to direct. Dynamic arts administrator Kathy Rowland was called in to produce. Five powerful women working together is certainly a cosmic force to be reckoned with.
I’ve always known that theater, like all the arts, has its roots in shamanism. But the glory-seeking human ego often hijacks the process. In this instance, as Jo Kukathas revealed, there was no egotism, nor were there primadonna displays. Instead, there was a deep spiritual bonding amongst the collaborators that generated a tangible field of love, intelligence and creative wisdom. From Table Mountain To Teluk Intan was undoubtedly a labor of love. Art from the heart, sacred stuff.
Sue Ingleton’s intuitive and judicious directorial input included creating a dramatic soundscape (with the help of ace audio engineer Wong Pek Fui) to complement the beautiful and brilliant simplicity of Carolyn Lau’s versatile set. (An arty video clip was projected at one point in the narrative but it was too fragmented to register except subliminally.)
Illustrious lighting designer Mac Chan outdid himself on this production. We were illuminated by the sheer effectiveness and precision of Chan’s gobsmacking MRI (Magnetic Radiation Imaging) sequence which, for a minute, beamed the audience into a Star Trek reality… and then teleported us to Teluk Intan, to yet another manifestation of racial bigotry, prejudice and “tempurungism” Shahimah believed she’d left behind in South Africa.
The reality within Reality that’s revealed only when disbelief is suspended: such synchronistic moments in theater can never be forgotten. At one point a woman sitting in the front row (who occasionally obscured my view with her triangular hairdo) stood up unsteadily and reached for her crutches. Something went CLICK! in my brain. I was aware of a reality shift: the drama I was witnessing on stage was born of a trauma a real person had suffered and survived – more than survived, obviously. The real-life Alia aka Shahimah appeared a little overcome (and rightly so) watching Jo Kukathas re-enact her life – Capetown accent and all – while channeling a vivid cast of characters drawn from the playwright’s memory. I had come to see the play without the slightest inkling of what it was about. Realizing it was all about that feisty looking woman with the kooky hairdo was truly a powerful, profound revelation. It was very… dramatic.
Drama, trauma, Traum (which in German means dream): James Joyce called history a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. Theater began with mystery plays enacted by Eleusinian initiates for public cartharsis and healing (making whole). Entertainment was only the sugar-coating on the pill of social therapy. What are our lives if not a bunch of stories? And what are stories if not a record of our explorations in spacetime, a document of our quest for meaning and purpose and a sense of belonging? Shahimah Idris’s honesty of voice and resilience of spirit can only awaken us to our own.
I have seen Jo Kukathas progress from strength to strength with each new challenge. But her artistic contact with director Sue Ingleton seems to have propelled her beyond technical mastery into a dramaturgical form of trance channeling. I couldn’t resist thinking that the amazing Jo Kukathas was serving as some sort of holographic portal for entities trapped in the collective unconscious. Her total surrender to the mediumistic task secures their release from time’s prison and therefore Alia/Shahimah’s too. Her agile, witty tongue and acrobatic physical movements in telling Alia’s story starkly underscored the helplessness and humiliation the wheelchair-bound and bed-ridden must feel. Ms Kukathas’s victorious performance was a monumental inspiration to all who have ever felt defeated by life.
For me, From Table Mountain To Teluk Intan peremptorily dismissed any niggling doubts I may have entertained about the therapeutic value of theater. Go see the play! If I had stars to hand out I’d give this one lots more than five.