When Aidli "Alin" Mosbit's Dan Tiga Dara Terbang Ke Bulan (And Three Virgins Fly To The Moon) was first staged in 1995, the play startled the Malay community with its frank discussion of sex and gender inequality.
Three years later, in 1998, she wrote Ikan Cantik (Beautiful Fish), which drew more gasps and some finger-wagging. The play's six Malay actresses shaved their heads and used vulgarities, leading conservative Malay-Muslims to label the practices un-Islamic.
But, with time, the realm of theatre has become accepted as a safe space to explore and wrestle with issues concerning the Malay-Muslim community and, in recent years, the envelope has been pushed even further.
A new wave of Malay theatre artists has been giving contemporary issues an airing. The difference between them and their predecessors, however, is that their works have a more universal, "We Are Singapore" type of appeal and transcend racial lines, aided by English surtitles, making the plays more accessible to non-Malay-speaking audiences.
One such play in which various racial and religious issues overlap inextricably is playwright Alfian Sa'at's Nadirah (2009), which clinched the Life! Theatre Award for Best Original Script in 2010.
In the quietly powerful work, a young Muslim woman struggles with her Chinese mother's possible conversion to Christianity. The play was sold out during its restaging here in 2011 and warmly received when it played in Kuala Lumpur last year.
Another Malay theatre practitioner who tackles concerns relatable to the general Singapore and regional audience is Teater Ekamatra's associate artist Irfan Kasban, 25, who is seeing more non-Malays among the company's predominantly Malay audience.
Last year, his site-specific work, This Placement, staged in and around the former Geylang Fire Station, dealt with the problems of a fading physical heritage. And earlier this year, a more naturalistic work, Tahan, captured the experience of a young man serving his national service stint on the police force.
Plays using both English and Malay such as interracial national service drama Charged (2010) and Mata Hati (2011) - about one fictional Malay politician's indiscretions - have further broadened the appeal of Malay theatre companies. Both were produced by Ekamatra and directed by its artistic director Zizi Azah.
Alin, 40, founder of five-year-old theatre group Panggung Arts, says: "Nowadays, when I talk about Malay issues, I don't feel like talking about them as Malay issues. I really feel that it's our issue - each and every one of us.
"If you call yourself a Singaporean, whatever that's affecting me now will somehow affect you."
The actress-playwright is directing a restaging of the pivotal And Three Virgins, which opens at the Esplanade Theatre Studio later this week. This time, it will be performed by a new trio of actresses: Siti Khalijah Zainal, 27, Shida Mahadi, 32, and Nur Khairiyah Ramli.
Khairiyah, 25, whose first production - the doublebill Penantian (The Wait) - made its debut at The Substation last Friday, is one of the defining faces of the up-and-coming generation of Malay theatremakers.
The boldness and ambition of this generation extends not just to issues, but also the wearing of multiple hats in the theatre. Khairiyah, who exemplifies this, has not limited herself to acting, but has also taken on the challenge of writing and directing.
Going against type
Crafted together with playwright, actress and costume designer Molizah Mohammed Mohter, 35, Penantian centres around three women who are struggling to balance their personal lives with the world beyond - and who are all waiting for something.
Khairiyah says: "It's nothing specifically to do with the Malay community. They just happen to be Malay girls."
She does not want to rehash the same tired racialised caricatures. "There's always this stereotype in theatre and on TV that, oh, Malays are lazy," she adds, with exasperation. "Yeah, we've got that already. I think we should move on from there."
Established Malay theatre groups Teater Ekamatra and Teater Kami have also made confident inroads in these directions with their recent offerings.
Zizi, 33, says: "I think we feel that our experience is not separate from the rest of Singapore. We are Malay Singaporeans. We are both at the same time. It's not exclusive." Her most recent work, Not Counted (2012), confronted inequalities in Singapore's meritocracy, some of which stem from religious and racial stereotypes.
Malay theatre has been evolving gradually over the past three decades, with many, including Zizi, feeling that the 1990s were a turning point. That decade saw a definite shift from the grand proscenium stage to the intimate black-box space and a certain daring in the way works have approached religion and social issues.
Teater Kami, Teater Artistik and Teater Ekamatra - three of the main Malay theatre groups here - were each established more than 20 years ago. They initiated a departure in the late 1980s from the traditional folktale-based Malay theatre and bangsawan (Malay opera) that had previously characterised the scene.
Today, some feel these historical works still have a place. Teater Artistik's president Roslan Mohamad Daud, 48, says his group stresses classic Malay writing, even if the market for these more literary works might be smaller: "With theatre, it's an opportunity for audience members to appreciate and see the richness of the language."
While many Malay theatre groups are venturing into the territory of multilingual plays, he believes that a diversity of voices is needed.
Relevance to Malay community
Beyond the question of form, there is the overarching question of whether Malay theatre can straddle both worlds - the traditional and contemporary.
Teater Kami is one group that has managed to put on works from both ends of the spectrum. Last year, it restaged The Ballad Of Tun Fatimah, a historical work about the last Sultanah of Malacca, and, for the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in January, they performed C.I.N.T.A, a series of five intertwined modern love stories set in Singapore.
The Substation's artistic director, Noor Effendy Ibrahim, says: "The role of Malay theatre would be the same as what any ethnic or minority voice theatre should be. It has to give that side of the story to the national landscape."
Effendy, 40, previously the artistic director of Teater Ekamatra, is encouraged by the path that Malay theatre has taken.
But he raises some pointed questions: "Has Malay theatre been seeking the larger audience at the expense of the Malay audience? Are we still visible to the Malay community? Are we still a relevant voice to them? Within the Malay community, what is the role of Malay theatre? I think we're not sure yet."
He adds: "It's not that it should be for only a Malay audience, but I feel that there is a point in the Malay community coming to see Malay theatre as a necessary or powerful tool to speak out from. It's one of the platforms where the Malay story can be told, can be shared, where there can be discourse."
The 2010 winner of TheatreWorks' 24-Hour Playwriting Competition, Ahmad Musta'ain Khamis, 26, is one young playwright intrigued by community theatre and how drama can be used for education or social intervention.
He thinks Malay theatre continues to matter to Malays and Singaporeans at large as "a very safe platform to explore issues which would normally never surface" or "to tell or inform others about the Malay culture or Islamic culture".
The trainee teacher's winning work, titled Serunding, toured various community centres around the island in 2010 and 2011. His one-woman play starred Alin as a Malay-Muslim mother who is torn up over the departure of her daughter.
Ahmad is currently working with a madrasah in Singapore to stage a work for the Singapore Drama Educators' Association's conference later this month. He says: "As a Malay-Muslim, even I don't know what goes on (in a madrasah) and there's so much speculation. I just really wanted to know."
Willing to try everything
This clutch of up-and-coming artists such as Ahmad, Irfan and Khairiyah tend to be multihyphenates: They are willing to try their hand at acting, writing, directing and even lighting, set and costume design.
Mish'aal Syed Nasar, 30, a member of the recently founded Malay theatre collective Hatch Theatrics, notes that each member takes on multiple roles from one production to the next. He might act in a performance and do production management for the next - no sweat.
Young practitioners such as actress Siti Khalijah are working with different theatre groups, not necessarily those in Malay theatre. She has worked extensively with The Necessary Stage, which does primarily English-language theatre and recently made her debut with The Theatre Practice, known for its Mandarin productions. In the multilingual The Bride Always Knocks Twice, she played a 14th-century Malay concubine.
Shida, one of the actresses in And Three Virgins, says: "I think this generation is braver. They're not restricted by self-esteem issues. They seem very confident. Their attitude is, 'I might suck at it, but at least I'll try it.' I think that's very encouraging."
But director Alin suggests that emerging practitioners continue to master specific areas of their craft. She uses the iceberg as a metaphor: "You need to be so much more underneath to be that much above. What we see on top is just the tip of the iceberg, but usually the iceberg is more than that. You need to be strong in your foundation before you can grow tall and wide."
Zizi, who teaches dramatic writing to secondary and tertiary students and also heads Ekamatra's playwright mentorship programme, echoes the sentiment that the younger generation is more daring and unflinching in dealing with new or conventionally difficult material, such as politics or religion.
She says: "They're not afraid of dealing with the issue and really playing around with it. They use so many different devices, they pull from so many different traditions and they create their own traditions, which I think is really a mark of how we have grown and developed by leaps and bounds."
One of her students, School of the Arts student Nur Sabrina Dzulkifli, 16, was the winner in the youth category of last year's 24-Hour Playwriting Competition. Sabrina fleshed out some mature topics such as surrogacy and abortion in her script Of Babies (Not Really) And People, which looked at marriage and parenthood. She says: "I believe theatre is a medium for social change and that it also has to reflect society as a whole. Only when you reflect society will society be able to look at itself from an objective point of view."
Amid these evolving trends and directions, one thing is for sure - what is affectionately known as the spirit of "gotong royong" (mutual help) is one of the strong characteristics of Malay theatre and one that has persisted through the decades. It can only intensify as the borders between theatre companies become more fluid.
"At the end of the day," says Khairiyah, "theatre is for everyone. We're all here together."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 7, 2013
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