Two decades before Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, made the cover of Vanity Fair, playwright Michael Chiang made headlines here for Private Parts, a comic and compassionate play which featured the lives and loves of transsexuals in Singapore.
He restages the 1992 theatrical production from Nov 2 to 18 at the Drama Centre Theatre, under his new not-for-profit company Michael Chiang Playthings.
TV actor Jason Godfrey plays talk-show host Warren, who befriends three transsexuals at a clinic specialising in sex reassignment surgery and convinces them to be guests on his show.
Chua Enlai plays the lead role of transgender woman Mirabella; Shane Mardjuki plays Lavinia, another patient at the clinic; and Zee Wong is their friend Edward. The cast also includes Jo Tan, Andrew Marko, Frances Lee, Hirzi Zulkiflie, Andy Cai and Andreas Chua.
The script remains set in the 1990s for the restaging. Chiang and director Beatrice Chia-Richmond talked about updating it, but decided not to, since it would not be as simple as updating pop-culture references.
Chiang, 62, says: "To update means you have to be more PC (politically correct) to reflect how far the trans community has come. It brings a completely different layer to the story."
BOOK IT/ PRIVATE PARTS
WHERE: Drama Centre Theatre, 100 Victoria Street
WHEN: Nov 2 to 18, Tuesdays to Fridays, 8pm; Saturdays, 3 and 8pm; Sundays, 3pm; additional 3pm show on Nov 6
ADMISSION: $43 to $98 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)
Keeping the play as it was, he adds, "might be a way for us to see how far we have changed as a society. It might be more powerful to see what we were".
He wrote Private Parts in this context: In the 1970s and 1980s, Singapore became internationally renowned as the place for sex reassignment surgery, thanks to a pioneering surgeon, the late Dr S. S. Ratnam. Public hospitals here reportedly carried out hundreds of such operations every year. In 1987, however, hospitals were asked to stop performing such surgery, citing the risk of staff contracting the Aids virus.
The play was originally commissioned by TheatreWorks and directed by Ong Keng Sen for the 1992 Singapore Festival of Arts. It attracted close to 20,000 viewers and a Mandarin version was produced two years later.
The English production was last restaged professionally in 2004. There have also been numerous student and amateur productions, testifying to the enduring appeal of the script.
Chia-Richmond, 44, directed Chiang's 2013 tai-tai comedy High Class and last year's Army Daze 2, but says she thinks Private Parts is the writer's best work.
She says: "Every character in this piece has to be played with a delicate balance that we do not play exclusively for laughs, but we get the laughs.
"It's not a piece about drag queens. It's about characters who meet in a room in unusual circumstances, and a love story emerges."
About 100 actors turned up for auditions last year, including transgender performers. None made the cut, but the director says this was only after much discussion and call-backs.
She adds: "People have asked me, 'Do you have trans people in the cast?' While understanding the voices that need to be heard, we've cast it with the best performers who will bring out and excavate these roles in November."