Journey through the rites of grief

(From far left) Victoria Chen, Myle Yan Tay, Jean Ng, Karen Tan and Wiggie in Eat Duck by Checkpoint Theatre.
(From far left) Victoria Chen, Myle Yan Tay, Jean Ng, Karen Tan and Wiggie in Eat Duck by Checkpoint Theatre. PHOTO: CHECKPOINT THEATRE

Funeral rites and family drama take centre stage in Checkpoint Theatre's latest production Eat Duck, which unfolds during a void deck wake as an extended family gather to mourn their grandmother while dealing with all the emotional baggage over generations.

It is the debut of emerging playwright Zenda Tan, 23, who based it on her experiences of helping out at the Taoist funeral of a loved one's grandmother two years ago.

In her final moments, the grandmother had kept asking to "eat duck", even though she could no longer swallow food. The doctor speculated that she might have been reminiscing about a happier time like Chinese New Year, when her family was together and duck might have been a dish served during the occasion.

As Tan was not a member of the immediate family, she spent her time carrying out simple tasks such as refilling trays with peanuts for guests and folding paper money to be burned for the dead to take into the afterlife, but was mostly an observer.

This left her with plenty of time to reflect on her own family and the nature of familial tension.

"Why is it that we only confront these issues in critical moments, such as sickness and death?" she muses.

"An overarching theme of the play is the tension between the past and the present, which can encompass a lot - the tension between the older and younger generations, the fading away of some religious practices and the way we deal with grief, how grief extends death from a single moment of time outwards into the future."

  • BOOK IT/ EAT DUCK

  • WHERE: School of the Arts Studio Theatre, 1 Zubir Said Drive

    WHEN: Thursday to Sept 8, Thursdays and Fridays, 8pm; Saturdays, 3 and 8pm; Sundays, 3pm 

    ADMISSION: $45 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Advisory 16 (some mature content and coarse language). For more information, go to checkpoint-theatre.org

The script struck a chord with director Claire Wong, who lost her father to pneumonia in 2016.

"The familiarity of grief, the business of having to have this process of mourning - it's just so recognisable," she says.

"The death of an important family member crystallises past and future in one moment."

Wong, who is in her 50s, wants to explore how rituals provide structure to get one through a period of mourning. Folding paper money will feature in the play, as will the offering of incense and the reciting of prayers.

The play is a multi-generational one in more than one sense. Its cast of 11 ranges in age from actors in their 50s such as Karen Tan and Julius Foo, to 13-year-old newcomer Shann Sim, a School of the Arts (Sota) student.

Zenda Tan, who developed her script under Checkpoint's Works In Development programme, studied playwriting under Faith Ng, whose plays include Normal (2015) and A Good Death (2018).

Ng was in turn the student of Huzir Sulaiman, who along with Wong is joint artistic director of Checkpoint.

"So that makes Zenda Huzir's grand-student," quips Wong. "It's something we are very proud of at Checkpoint - this legacy and investment in talent-spotting and mentoring."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2019, with the headline 'Journey through the rites of grief'. Print Edition | Subscribe