Image by Sharpened Word and Fa Abdul
Fa Abdul is no longer a stranger among Malaysians.
The courageous writer, columnist and playwright is famous for speaking her mind – whether people like what they read or hear, that is besides the point. Fa Abdul exercises her freedom to express and she does it well.
In February 2019, her production Sex in Georgetown City had to be called off. Those who were against the play said it was obscene, disrespectful and un-Islamic. This, despite the fact that they had not watched the play. The play had to be re-staged under a new name, Rebound, in April.
If you thought Fa Abdul was done, nope she’s just starting.
When I received an email from the playwright about her bringing the sold out Tales from the Scars to Kuala Lumpur, I took it as an opportunity to see how she has been dealing with the aftermath of the penangpac incident and more about her latest endeavour.
Fa, you are currently on a roll. Here we are, close to seven months since the incident at penangpac, and you’re set to stage your second play. If anyone else was in your shoes and experienced what you had, they would have either gone on a hiatus or worst, given up. Can you share with me, why is it that you do what you do?
What happened in February actually increased my drive. I have always believed that the measure of progressive society lies in open expression and unencumbered intellectual/emotional debate. My writing, plays, and direction have always prioritised these traits. The fact that Sex in Georgetown City was blatantly misunderstood and misrepresented fuelled my efforts to continue bringing quality theatre to the masses in Malaysia.
Opposition to the staging to the play was led by a small segment of society which unfortunately was accorded a disproportionately large voice under the guise of race and religion. The content of the play was deemed inoffensive by the highest levels of law enforcement and leadership in Penang and beyond. This only underlines the urgency of bringing more such contents to the fore, rather than suppressing such content to falsely cater to a misguided segment of the population.
My writing has always come from an honest place. As Malaysia moves toward becoming a matured democracy, I strongly feel that collectively we must encourage an outpouring of honesty in communicating with each other. There must be a space for open dialogue and debate, where differences of opinion is not only tolerated but also respected. In mature democracies, there are no filters in sharing of opinion, experiences and facts. I strive to emulate that.
Let’s focus on Tales from the Scars. What is the inspiration behind it?
Since I formed Big Nose Productions in 2013, I have been fortunate to enjoy large degree of success. Now in my sixth year as an established playwright, producer and director under my own label, I paused to look at the impact I have made. Most of my theatrical productions have infused much comedy in relaying its messages. Although I have amassed a strong and loyal following, both in terms of audience and cast members however I have noticed that I have become typecast as a comedy writer.
Tales from the Scars was first staged in Penang in August 2018 and is a collection of monologues which address serious and very relevant personal issues people in Malaysia face on a daily basis. It was a runaway success in Penang. I am now bringing it to KL where I intend to remind audiences and fellow theatre practitioners of my versatility as a writer and director.
As you know, I am also a columnist for Malaysiakini where I opine on political and social issues in the country. I focused on more of the comedic aspects of theatre for some years because it was an effective way to tell stories and for messages to stick with audiences. Tales from the Scars is a valuable way for me to showcase other dimensions of my writing.
Are all of these monologues actual personal stories of the cast ala Faridah Merican’s Life Sdn Bhd series or are these stories of other people but told by the cast?
I am a big fan of Faridah Merican’s Life Sdn Bhd series. I loved the concept, particularly people telling personal stories to a listening audience. I was never a fan of monologues but when I watched Life Sdn Bhd, the idea of putting a series of monologues together began to form in my mind. The difference with Tales from the Scars is that it is scripted and performed by actors. I write the scripts (based on personal experiences and those of friends and family, also personal stories I gather from documentaries and blogs) and actors adjust their performances, borrowing perhaps a little from their own influences and experiences.
The monologues address so many human impact stories that are relevant to all Malaysians. They address the effect of our laws, our customs, our traditions, our way of life have had on real lives. I also inspect the effect of social construct such as marriage, divorce, sexuality and religious rituals on the realities of people’s lives. We forget that even when we follow the law, we leave so many lives broken.
This is essentially a re-staging of the sold out performance at penangpac. Do you remember how audience members reacted? Care to share some memorable reactions?
Although this is the second staging of Tales from the Scars in Malaysia, only 5 of the monologues from the Penang performance a year ago are being performed in KL. I did this not because the other 5 monologues were not successful but because I identified more serious and current issues that would increase the relevance of the stories being told.
As for memorable audience moment, I can think of three right off the bat!
1. My Beef with God
This is a monologue on the impact of mandatory conversion on a non-Muslim. The story was told in a very colloquial Indian way, which led the audience to believe it was a funny tale of inter-racial romance but as the story unfolded it became apparent that the young woman telling the story was facing an enormous struggle of having to relinquish her identity and faith to pursue love. Seeing the audience reaction change from uproarious laughter to serious thought and finally thunderous applause was very gratifying.
This is a story of a girl struggling with the impact of her parent’s divorce had in her life. She pens a letter to her mother before she runs away from home. Divorce has become so common in our society today that many of us scarcely think about its deep and damaging effects. I did not expect the audience to resonate so profoundly with this piece. People were even silently weeping and teary-eyed. It daunt on me that one need not directly experience divorce to be a party to it or live with its consequences.
3. Brown Man in a Hood
This monologue explored the extreme impact of institutional and social racism on the emotional development of a young Indian man. There is a dark side to this piece. I wondered if the audience may not relate to the extreme emotions of the actor, but was amazed to see that people followed his journey of racism completely enraptured to his every word. When the startling conclusion was arrived, the audience sat in horror for a few seconds after the monologue had ended and then broke into applause.
All of us – from the worst to the best – come with scars. What’s one scar that still itches till this day for you, Fa?
Every scar tells a story. My story would be that of a young girl who abandoned her dream for love. And when that love failed her, she abandoned her marriage to find her identity. I value my scars very much as they are a constant reminder to me that my identity is very precious and must never be taken for granted. The only time my scars itch and bleed is when I see how my decisions in the past has affected the lives of my children and their future. Leftover was written during one of this episodes and will be performed by my daughter.
Fa Abdul’s Tales from the Scars will run from August 16 to 18 at Pentas 2, The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. More info on the show here. By the way, you might enjoy this read too.
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