Theatre review: Empathy for transsexuals re-examined in Michael Chiang's Private Parts

(From left) Shane Mardjuki, Zee Wong, Jason Godfrey and Chua Enlai in Private Parts, restaged by Michael Chiang Playthings.
(From left) Shane Mardjuki, Zee Wong, Jason Godfrey and Chua Enlai in Private Parts, restaged by Michael Chiang Playthings.PHOTO: MICHAEL CHIANG PLAYTHINGS LTD

PRIVATE PARTS

Michael Chiang Playthings

Drama Centre Theatre/ Nov 8

Towards the end of Private Parts, friction is generated as three transsexuals appearing on a television talk show try to choose their own seats but are shepherded into what the host thinks are the most appropriate places for them.

It is one of many striking visual metaphors underlining this comic play's serious call for action. Mainstream society demands that transsexuals occupy certain places in public discourse, perhaps as figures of fun, perhaps as objects of pity. Private Parts ensures that the audience instead sees transsexuals as human beings, worthy of respect, love and the right to live their lives without judgement and with the legal rights granted to heterosexuals and the cis-gendered.

This re-staging - the fourth professional production, 14 years after the script's last outing - comes from the playwright's own newly formed company, Michael Chiang Playthings. It is directed by Beatrice Chia-Richmond and remains set in the 1990s, thus requiring the audience to consider whether Singaporean society has grown more or less tolerant in the last three decades.

Chiang presents the case for transsexual rights through the plight of heterosexual TV star Warren (played here by Jason Godfrey). He is desperately trying to transition from teen idol to trusted talk-show host. After a golfing accident sends him to a surgical clinic, he finds a semi-platonic soulmate in Mirabella (Chua Enlai), a woman born in the body of a man.

Warren's post-accident fears about sexual inadequacy and his ability to have children mirror the unspoken, lifelong worries of Mirabella and her other transsexual friends, Lavinia (Shane Mardjuki) and Edward (Zee Wong). The deep yet fragile bonds between Warren and Mirabella are later tested under the TV spotlight, forcing Warren - and the stage audience - to face deeply ingrained prejudices.

When Private Parts was first commissioned by TheatreWorks for the 1992 Singapore Festival of Arts, Singapore had just redeveloped the famous transsexual haunt of Bugis Street into a squeaky clean tourist district, and started eschewing its reputation as the international hub for sex reassignment surgery. This fame was cemented in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to a pioneering surgeon, the late Dr S. S. Ratnam.

In 1987, however, hospitals were asked to stop performing such surgery, citing the risk of staff contracting the Aids virus. Still, five years later, Chiang in his play imagined that it would be more likely for the Government to boost tourist numbers by allowing an adults-only resort, Bugis World, than change its strict anti-gambling laws in favour of casinos.

 

Context like this makes the present-day viewer wonder whether Private Parts debuted in more tolerant times. Bugis Street's sex workers were given their due as part of the essential character of Singapore. The transsexual characters had funny lines but they were definitely not figures of fun.

Mirabella, played with quiet, riveting intensity by Chua, is a classy lady - intelligent, funny and the survivor of a world that only deals out pain for those like her. The affection that blooms between her and Warren is understandable and outshines Warren's socially sanctioned relationship with his girlfriend Rosalind (Frances Lee, who also plays the secondary role of outraged housewife Betsy, foe of the transsexual agenda).

  • Book it

  • PRIVATE PARTS

    WHERE: Drama Centre Theatre, 100 Victoria Street, National Library Building

    WHEN: Until Nov 18, Tuesdays to Fridays, 8pm; Saturdays, 3 and 8pm; Sundays, 3pm

    ADMISSION: $43 to $98 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: www.michaelchiangplaythings.com

The re-staging is old-school, with some awkward scene transitions in the dark. However, on the whole the director does well to trust the script and cast to do their work. Costumes by Tube Gallery emphasise the transsexual characters' femininity and masculinity as required, showing them to advantage.

Despite the absence of smartphones and the Internet, the script is - sadly - up to date in its presentation of intolerance and the overlooked pain of human beings trying to live life on their own terms.

Today, the discourse elsewhere in the world has moved on to expanding personal pronouns and granting transgender and transsexual individuals the right to marry and have families. Private Parts reminds viewers that these are conversations that need to happen here as well.