In 2018, little did Terence Toh know that his chance encounter with the late Dr. Aini Hamid would culminate in friendship and a play.
Fast forward four years later, You, Me and the Big C, co-written by Terence and Dr. Aini, will be brought to life by legendary actor and theatre director, Joe Hasham.
Set to be staged at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac) from 17 to 25 September 2022, the play will star Hana Nadira, Chrystal Foo, Tin Raman, Carolyn Chow, Chia Sing, Sidhart Joe Dev, Veronica Boh, Omar Ali, Nick Raja Adam, Skylar Lim, and Xavier Chen Wen Xuen.
We spoke to both Joe and Terence about how You, Me and the Big C, based on Dr. Aini’s real-life battle with cancer, aims to bring awareness and hope to those who watch it.
Joe: More so than most of the other plays I have directed this has been heavily collaborative. The first six weeks of the rehearsal process were dedicated to table work; readings, discussions, and changes. The cast was given the opportunity to express points of view that were important to them. Not that this is a new thing, but this time around it was done with much love, consideration, and passion.
Terence: Oh wow. Well, I think most people know me for writing mostly comedic, heavily satirical musicals. My previous works have involved zombies at work, ghosts, and gods of fortune. So to do this, a very character-driven play about a mother and daughter struggling with the impact of cancer on their lives, must have been a bit of a surprise to some! In some senses, this is one of the more ‘serious’ plays I’ve written. Cancer, after all, is a very serious issue, and I had to make sure I handled it in a sensitive, appropriate manner. But I made sure, however (and in fact, I think it was one of the reasons I was approached to write this) to add humour into this. I think it’s very important for plays that deal with heavy issues to have some lightness in them, to balance the tone. And after all, I think one of the best qualities of being human is being able to find lightness and laughs even in the darkest of circumstances. It’s what keeps us going. Dr. Aini, in particular, was such a witty, firecracker of a person, despite having to deal with her cancer. Another difference for me was that for once, I was writing a play about a then-living person, who could give input about her life and how she was portrayed. I not only had to create a character, I had to make sure she was an accurate portrayal of a live person. But at the same time, change some stuff up for dramatic potential. Dr. Aini was remarkably helpful in this regard, and really shared so many stories that helped me understand her character.
Joe: Although the play is a fictionalised telling of Aini’s story, many of the incidents in the play are based on actual happenings. Aini’s generosity is quite evident in the manner she exposes her pain and suffering.
Terence: Almost the whole play is based on the late Dr. Aini’s life and the experiences she had. We did invent the character of Mia, her daughter (Dr. Aini never had children), but this was done with Dr. Aini’s agreement, as she wanted to portray how cancer not only affected the lives of the person with it but their loved ones around them as well. While Mia is fictional, many of the things she goes through in the play are based on real-life experiences from real people dealing with cancer. Dr. Aini was very forthcoming with her experiences. Some of the lines in the play are directly from her. Indeed, there is a particularly dark scene towards the end, which really did happen as depicted. I think she was very brave in sharing that with us. Dr. Aini was really passionate about spreading her message of cancer awareness to people, and really put her all into the play. We wanted to stage this earlier, but alas, COVID got in the way. In the time, she has passed, which really breaks my heart. I wish she was still around now to watch her play being performed. I hope we do her story justice. I like to believe that maybe, just maybe, she is in a better place now, and somehow able to watch this play come to life.
Joe: The two biggest challenges were: 1) ensuring the factual content of the script and 2) getting Aini’s message across without sounding too preachy. There are many important messages in the play that needed to be conveyed to the audience, but we did not want it to come across as a long lecture, so Terence, the co-writer, very wisely injected suitable moments of humour so as to soften the blow.
Joe: AWARENESS, AWARENESS, AWARENESS!!!
Terence: Indeed, cancer cases seem to be on the rise lately. I remember the words of director Joe Hasham after he first read the play: ‘if by watching this, just one person is inspired to go and check themselves for cancer, and this has an effect on their life, then this play has succeeded.’ And I really believe that. I also hope the play encourages people to cherish life and the people all around them. Because at the end of the day, You Me And the Big C is about how a mother gets through great adversity due to the love of her daughter and the support of those around her.
Joe: Many years ago when I was ten years old my six-year-old sister died of leukaemia.
Terence: I believe I may have had a few elder relatives who died from cancer, but no one from my immediate family or close social circles.
Joe: We would like to think that the audience leaves the theatre with a heightened sense of responsibility to themselves…and that they get themselves checked… if they have not already.
Terence: Firstly, I hope they are encouraged to get themselves checked regularly for cancer and other health issues. Most people are either afraid to see doctors or think something like this won’t happen to them. And by the time they discover they need help, their cancer has already reached an advanced state. Early detection can save lives. Secondly, I hope this play encourages everyone to be kind and empathetic to each other. All of us are going through some kind of struggle or another. Cancer patients face a multitude of challenges, some of which I was never aware of until I met Dr. Aini. We may not be able to take someone’s pain away, but we can be there to help them and support them throughout every step of their journey.
Cover image by Dev Lee, supplied by The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac).