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Generations: Is, Will, Can

by Hong Xinyi

What Is

There is a scene in the sitcom 30 Rock that depicts the filter through which corporate executive Jack Donaghy sees the world. As the camera takes on his perspective, you see prices appearing next to all the objects and people in his sightlines. The show satirises his reduction of everything to monetary value both astringently and affectionately; it takes the position that the way capitalism’s captains are groomed to dehumanise others ultimately corrodes their own humanity. Beneath his bravado, Donaghy is a mess.

I think of this scene a lot during certain kinds of conversations in Singapore, mostly to amuse myself while I plot my escapes. I thought of it again when watching Singapore, Michigan. Its three protagonists – two Singaporeans and one American – are in their final year of university in the United States and taking a road trip together. Their real adult lives will soon begin, with all the irreversible choices and inevitable consequences that come with growing up. Standing at this crossroads, they are not entirely sure which path to pick. It’s a fairly universal experience; it should be easy to empathise.

And yet. Will (played by Shrey Bhargava), the Singaporean student whose studies are funded by a government scholarship, already feels deeply middle-aged. His Donaghy filter is fully formed and functioning, colouring all his perceptions and choices. The script by Chong An Ong positions this character as a bit of an underdog, in that his two road trip buddies can fall back on their vast reserves of generational family wealth if the risks they take don’t work out. But in the larger scheme of things, these are all pretty privileged people.

Which is okay. Privileged people are people too, and have just as much of a claim as anybody else to taking centre stage in a story. But the three points of this triangle are too similar to generate compelling narrative momentum at this stage of the play’s development.

Jesse (Aidan Kelly), the American, is the most weakly drawn, and needs more fleshing out. Carol (Vanessa Kee), an apparently reluctant heiress, has potential, but in her current incarnation feels a little implausible. She wants to make her own way, but is doing it in a pretty half-assed fashion that strongly suggests a lack of conviction. There is a seed of something interesting here, in the personal reckoning of someone unable (as yet) to get a regular job on her own steam but stands to lead a giant corporation if she accepts that her path to success must run through family networks. How will her inchoate ideas about herself fragment and cohere as the reality of the ways of the world sinks in? I’d watch more of that.

But mostly I’m curious about who this play is for. For almost the entirety of this troubled 21st century so far, people who are the same age as these characters, or considerably younger, have been front and centre in championing all kinds of causes they see as central to building a more equitable future. The language this generation speaks is significantly politicised, one might even argue reflexively so. But there is not a hint of this larger context in the play. Are these characters from a different time, when the prices of things were all that young people talked about with one another? When was that time? Are they enacting their dilemmas about how to exist within prevailing structures for a broad audience of peers, or a more specific one of fellow nepo babies, or for the deeply middle-aged who faced these same narrowly defined choices long ago?

This script presents a strikingly constrained world for those who already have every advantage. Why, when the stakes are so low, are their dreams so solipsistic? Privilege corrodes — that’s a feature, not a bug. A more searching examination of its metabolism may yield more fertile tensions.

What Will Be

Social Distancing Ambassadors, by Zulfadli Rashid, gifts a hell of a line to a character called Brayden, an unassuming young man who knows he can be a little much sometimes. Talking about some posters he saw in a housing estate, he observes (I’m paraphrasing): “They used Canva but they still have a PowerPoint mindset.”

The specificity contained in this sentence is so delightful it still makes me laugh (as does the note-perfect name choice of Brayden). It tells you so much about the way this character’s mind works, the filter through which he sees the world, and how he might want to change it.

But for the moment, when we meet him, Brayden (Andre Chong) is still trying to figure stuff out. The play is set in the earliest months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when Brayden takes up a job as a Social Distancing Ambassador and gets to know Norah (Elnie S Mashari), who may be his first Malay and middle-aged friend.

Norah and her father Haji Razali (Jasmi Md Nor) are similarly vividly composed. She is a veteran at handling difficult people, thanks to her previous customer-facing job in an airline. In the way she deploys her charm, sarcasm, and authority, we see a woman who has had a lot of practice navigating the world. She understands the stress points where her talents can be applied effectively, and the points of obduration where patience is the only option.

One of these latter points is her father, who is resistant to getting his Covid-19 vaccine. This character asks us to get to know him through his relationships — with his family, his friends, and his neighbours. He sees the world as a web of human ties, and each of us as a node who must do our part to fortify these ties. He is, in his own way, the character who is surest about how to face life.

The lively characterisation, aided by this assured cast, will go a long way towards finetuning the plot, which feels somewhat meandering based on the excerpts of the script that were staged. But its bones are good, and a lot of rich emotional resonance can be unlocked from the theme of inter-generational encounters. At the post-show talk that followed the staging I attended, several young audience members said Brayden’s self-perceived inability to connect with his ailing grandmother struck a chord with them. Visiting her at the hospice, he switches from English to a Chinese dialect. He tells her, “I’m sorry for not knowing how to take care of you the way you took care of me.” His new friendship with Norah has the potential to show him another perspective to this perception. In her private expressions of infinite patience, in the way she and her father face loss and grief together, Brayden may be able to glimpse a future version of himself. The people who love us teach us how to become people who can love; the giving of care must be learned over a lifetime. You may not know how to shoulder it today. But one day, you will.

What Can Be

Somewhere, sometime, you may have come across some version of this dictum: Singapore cannot afford to see the world as we want it to be. We have to see the world as it is. This is one of many ways we are often exhorted to be resolutely pragmatic in the face of formidable vulnerabilities. But there is a space in between what we want and what is, and in that space dwells what can be. This space of possibility is where The Radicalisation of Mrs Mary Lim-Rodrigues chooses to stake its claim.

This script by Michelle Tan is a marvel. It is buoyant with a distinct and lovely music, which shifts gracefully between lyrical poignance and a sort of laughing wryness. Large portions of it are presented in the third-person voice, which accounts for much of its singular musicality. This experimentation in form borrows from the novelistic technique of free indirect discourse and the cinematic device of the voiceover, putting narration in the hands of the performers who toggle between this mode and speaking lines as the play’s characters.

Serene Chen plays the title character (henceforth MLR), a school principal who sees educating as her calling. She has moved up the ladder while trying to stay steadfast in her conviction that there is value in saying what you really mean, even when it messes up the well-oiled machinery of social niceties and anodyne corporatese. She prays every day. Perhaps that detail was why, when some of the script was projected onstage in certain moments (another experiment with form), I felt the correct response was to say these words out loud, all of us together, like a litany.

Sindhura Kalidas plays Shan, a student who has trouble meeting the demands of the world. In their encounters with each other, Shan and MLR are both trying their best — to stay true to themselves, to really care, to see if the boundaries of what is offer any exit routes that can offramp to what they want without burning everything down. And as the story progresses, MLR must decide whether this space of what can be, into which she has placed her lifelong faith, is truly the space she wants to dwell in. This is the secret that no one tells you when you’re starting your journey — immense choices and consequences attend every step of our lives, deep into middle age and beyond. We decide our fate every day. That’s what keeps things interesting.

Watching these two masterful actresses bring this script to life was an incredible pleasure, and I hope a full-fledged staging is not far off. Well into my own MLR era, I thought I saw an interesting expression on Chen’s face during the curtain call, a sort of certainty that the elusive alchemy one is always subconsciously anticipating in live theatre had occurred that day. Maybe I’m projecting. But it had. Because anything is possible. But you have to work for it. And then, you have to choose.

31 May 2024, Fri

1 June 2024, Sat
17 - 19 May 2024, Fri - Sun

31 May & 1 June 2024, Fri & Sat
18 May 2024, Sat

19 May 2024, Sun
19 May 2024, Sun | 7.30PM
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