Singapore Theatre Festival: Building A Character shines spotlight on race issues

Building A Character, which completed its run on July 8, 2018, is the story of a young Indian actress in Singapore. PHOTO: WILD RICE



Singapore Theatre Festival

Creative Cube, Lasalle College of the Arts/ Sunday

For those who say they don't see race as an issue in Singapore, Building A Character - a monologue by Indian Singaporean actress Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai - points out that the lighting may be wrong for them.

To illustrate that Dorai gives a cue, the light changes and her defined cheekbones look ashy. "Chinese lighting," she says.

Another cue and her features disappear.

At a third cue, there are audible gasps from the audience as lighting designer Petrina Dawn Tan makes the actress glow, bronzed and beautiful. "Indian lighting," Dorai says, neatly encapsulating the theme of the show. Aiming for the spotlight is hard when in many cases, the filters are set at a default, with no room for diversity.

Building A Character, which completed its run on Sunday, is the story of a young Indian actress in Singapore. It is Dorai's story, shaped with the help of playwright Ruth Tang and director Teo Mei Ann.

It can be seen as a companion piece to Alfian Sa'at's An Actress Prepares, running later in the Singapore Theatre Festival. Both works take their titles from acting handbooks written by Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski and showcase minority actresses - Siti Khalijah Zainal in the second work - playing themselves.

Building A Character starts out frank, funny and fabulous. Dorai skewers cherished cliches often trotted out to prove Singapore is a meritocracy.

What roles are there for a new actress wanting to make a name or just a living? She reads out casting calls and most want actors with Chinese or pan-Asian features. Roles for Indians are limited to racial harmony videos and such from government agencies. How frustrating for an actress with the depth and range Dorai demonstrates in the 80 minutes of this performance.

She can do accents and mimic anyone effortlessly. She can be a newscaster, a rockstar screaming into the microphone or the model of gracious living in a condominium advertisement - where Yoki Lai's set of tiered chequered floors transforms into an upper-crust residence, complete with hidden fridge.

She can also be the heavily accented Indian stewardess in Wild Rice's Boeing Boeing, a role she played last year and which is used to frame the questions asked by Building A Character. This stewardess is no stereotype in Building A Character. Dorai becomes the air hostess, confused that the audience finds her reality funny.

Taking a cue from Stanislavski's urging to consider the past in order to construct a future self, Dorai replays her own history. She shows us her past selves: a daughter estranged from a father, a girl growing up in an impoverished home where one bottle of green tea was rationed for an entire month.

The work would have been even more powerful if these scenes linked back to her desire to be an actress, or showed the audience how they led to who she currently is. Viewers are with her, convinced by every scene, but excluded from the actual journey which led her to the stage.

The scenes that stay with the audience are those of her current or recent past, notably one that starts out with her channelling pop divas from Christina Aguilera to Britney Spears. Her scintillating vocals grow louder and louder until she is almost screaming to drown out the background noise of nasty comments telling her she is worth less than she believes.

It is a powerful illustration of how an unsupportive environment can destroy self-confidence - and also how depression operates.

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