Rumah Dayak: Theatre collective Rupa co.Lab explores the troubled lives of Malay youth in its debut play
Playwright Nessa Anwar believes that there's rhythm and song in the troubled lives of mats and minahs, particularly "in the twangs of the mat rock's guitar, the roaring pipes of the mat rempit's bike, the fights amongst the mat-mat bola, the swishing eyebrow pencil of the minah havoc, and the intimidating thuds of the minah punk".
Her self-directed play, 'Rumah Dayak' — which takes its name from a dodgeball-inspired game that Malay kids used to play at void decks — is the first of three original full-length works that the theatre-making collective Rupa co.Lab intends to produce over next three years. The collective's other two founding members are producer Hazwan Norly, and playwright and arts editor Nabilah Said. Together, their objective is to reshape contemporary cultural conversations by creating new Singaporean works that are told through the lens of a Malay person.
'Rumah Dayak' does just that, revolving around a safehouse with true-to-life characters played and supported by an all-Malay cast and crew. I caught up with Nessa and four of the actors — Yasmin Yusof, Tysha Khan, Farah Lola, and Ali Mazrin — to find out more about the resonance of mats and minahs within their communities and why it took Nessa several years to write it.
Aravin: You took five or six years to write this play. Why did it take that long?
Nessa: I didn't have the proper resources, know-how, and nerve to stage Rumah Dayak five years ago. I was a very young writer and I didn't have this artistic network back then. I just knew I had this idea and writing it in a thought experiment was the best way I knew how. It was only after Checkpoint Theatre commissioned 'Riders Know When It's Gonna Rain' for the Singapore Writer's Festival in 2015 and Wild Rice subsequently re-staged it for the 2016 Singapore Theatre Festival that I found some confidence to even think of staging 'Rumah Dayak'. Noor Effendy Ibrahim was the one who nudged Nabilah, Hazwan, and myself to get together to stage our own full-length plays.
Aravin: Let's discuss the diverse cast of characters in the play. Would it be possible for each of you to describe the role you inhabit?
Farah Lola: I play Julia Christina. She is the main chaperone. It's her safehouse. Kids come on their own and stay for a night in her house. She is just keeping them out of trouble. It's a night programme. In the morning, the kids head to school or go back to their home.
Tysha Khan: I play Amirah Kamil. She comes from a generation where physical touch is not necessarily a bad thing, so she's pretty liberal with sex. Some might view her as a slut, but I like her. Julia doesn't like her.
Yamin Yusof: I play Dash. He's hot-headed and fights a lot, because he didn't receive much love when he was young. His has father left him, his mother is bedridden, and his aunt is taking care of him. He has suffered a lot of emotional abuse along the way.
Ali Mazrin: I play Slim. He's playful. Both of his parents are prisoners. The safehouse is where he finds comfort.
Aravin: Do each of you know people similar to your characters in real life?
Tysha Khan: I had to stalk a lot of teenage girls on IG, because Amira is 12 years younger than me. I talked to my nephews about girls their age. They do exist.
Farah Lola: Everyone on TikTok is Amira. Julia is an old minah. These days, you see so many of them get proper jobs. They aren't lost causes. They may be ghetto, but they are still trying to find money to support their family.
Aravin: Are the words 'mat' and 'minah' still relevant today?
Yamin Yusof: Yes, but they're not proud of it.
Tysha Khan: The previous generations were not proud of these terms either. I call my boyfriend a mat, though.
Ali Mazrin: We need to accept who we are. We can't change ourselves. You can't be a Caucasian all of a sudden.
Aravin: Is this production a comedy or tragedy?
Tysha Khan: It's a "slice of life". It captures the poeticism of the language of mats and minahs because it's not regular Malay. Nessa has made it worthy to be on stage as it's usually looked down upon. To stage it is a radical statement itself.
Aravin: What would you say to your own character if you met them in real life?
Farah Lola: Keep on doing what you do.
Tysha Khan: I would tell her that if she needed someone to talk to, she could talk to me. We tend to withhold information from children. We don't educate them about sex and drugs well enough.
Yamin Yusof: I've met older and younger versions of my character. When he is young, his is full of anger and resorts to drugs, but he repents when he gets older. I'll just have an open conversation with him.
Farah Lola: If you want to break the cycle, open up information to these kids. If not, they are going to find out the wrong way.
Ali Mazrin: I'll tell him that I'm proud of him.
Aravin: What do you hope audiences will take away from your debut play?
Nessa: To me, the Malay language in this play is its own character. I wanted to make a show with the dialogue I and many others grew up with. If you use the Malay language a certain way, you are viewed with derision, suspicion or patronization, even by your own community, but I see it as rhythm and song in us that are dying to be let out. We're not side characters, or token roles in someone else's story. I hope we can understand each other a little bit better.
'Rumah Dayak' runs from 21 to 24 November at Malay Heritage Centre. It is performed in Malay and English with English subtitles. It has received the rating of Advisory 16 (some mature content and coarse language). Limited tickets are still available.