“Is the trauma the encounter with death, or the ongoing experience of having survived it?”– from Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (1996) by Cathy Caruth

“The Prophet said, ‘Stay with [your mother], for Paradise is beneath her feet.’” – Sunan al-Nasa’i 3104

My mother is still haunted by my grandmother’s death 15 years ago, which was a difficult one. I once asked her how often she dreams of her own mother. She consulted her little archive of notes and texted back: “I can’t find the dream lol but I know I dreamt of popo not long after she passed away. Just an image. Then maybe once or twice a year she is in my dream as one of the ‘dreamees’.” (Dreamees. A good word, I told her.)

How do the extremities of emotion possess us when it comes to the deep wound of grief, but also when it comes to the fixations of fear? When my mother worries about me, and I attempt to reassure her that I’m fine, she’ll often use a shorthand we developed a few years ago, when we had a discussion about how motherhood fundamentally alters the landscape of the brain. “It’s my amygdala,” she’ll tell me, “it’s just my amygdala.”

The amygdala is a pair of almond-shaped structures located in the brain’s temporal lobes, just above the ears. The hippocampus, right next to them, consolidates memory—and the amygdala processes it, taking in all kinds of sensory information from the brain and, based on this, determining how we should behave. After childbirth, amygdala activity grows at an astonishing rate, making mothers hypersensitive to their child’s needs, and creating a positive feedback loop to sustain mothering behaviours. The amygdala is also the brain’s “smoke detector”, helping us understand which situations are dangerous or safe, explains psychologist Bessel van der Kolk in his bestselling book on trauma. The tough part is when the brain can’t figure out how to interpret what’s a threat, and what isn’t. Post-traumatic stress disorder is what happens when we’re held hostage by a traumatic event, and our brain continues to flood our bodies with powerful stress chemicals long after the event has passed. Not unlike the perpetual high gear of motherhood. 

Both trauma and motherhood rewire the brain in transformative and often irrevocable ways. This intertwining of the two, and my conversation with my mother, returned to me when I watched three Singaporean shows at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in January this year. 

The Fringe, presented by The Necessary Stage, has long been a space for both local and international artists to incubate and birth experimental, challenging, confronting, and potentially groundbreaking performance work. This year, we’re offered work by artists and groups at various life stages: an emerging artist platform (Matter.Less), a mid-career artist with his own changeable collective (Very Shy Gurl by Fendy), and a firmly established theatre company (The Necessary Stage, programming their own work). 

Three very different mothers hold us hostage in these productions. In “Motherland” (Very Shy Gurl by Fendy), a deliriously aggressive soldier, having pledged allegiance to a motherland trapped in a cycle of conflict, inflicts sadistic violence on another. In “Oo-woo” (The Necessary Stage), a mother’s worsening dementia divides two siblings on their course of action, and their relationship sours with the compromises that come with every decision. In “Here Where You Were” (Matter.Less), volunteers from the audience must contend with a dominating mother whose determination to protect her depressed son only ends up wounding him further. Paradise lies beneath your mother’s feet, so the hadith goes. But what if the ways that we desire to be in service to our mothers and motherlands pave the path to a very different sort of purgatory?

Farah Lola, who plays Hanna (left) and Dalifah Shahril, who plays Mak, in “Oo-woo” by The Necessary Stage. Photography courtesy of Tuckys Photography

Fringe organiser The Necessary Stage has weathered its share of theatrical trauma. They were a pioneer of the participatory forum theatre form here, which was unceremoniously defunded in 1994 after the The Straits Times (ST) published a report stoking moral panic that the company’s artistic leadership, Haresh Sharma and Alvin Tan, were propagating Marxist principles through their theatre productions. The group went through a period of limbo as it navigated the fallout in the mainstream media. Funding to forum theatre and performance art was only reinstated almost a decade later, in 2003.

Matter.Less’s “Here Where You Were” is an intimate forum theatre work that takes on its weighty theatrical inheritance with grace. Written by emerging playwright Danial Matin and directed with a deft hand by experienced theatre-maker and facilitator Moli Mohter, the work cloaks itself in the tropes of a small-scale family drama but gradually reveals its larger-scale sociocultural ambit: the taboos around mental health and suicide in the Malay Muslim community, the pressures of interracial relationships, the tensions between the medications of psychiatry and the salves of religion. Tertiary student Fadli (Faudhil Daud) is reeling from his grandmother’s death and wondering if he might have inherited her depressive disposition. His devoted Chinese girlfriend Leena (Chng Xin Xuan) is desperate to get him into therapy; his mother (Suhaila M Sanif) is decidedly not. Every decision they take (or don’t make) ratchets up the emotional tension in an already taut situation. 

We can see Mak’s amygdala in overdrive when her son ends up in hospital, which marks the end of the work’s “anti-model”, a short, focused play or scene containing at least one socio-political problem that remains uncomfortably unresolved. It’s now up to the audience to intervene by calling out “stop!” at any point in the play and replacing one of the characters on stage. That audience member, now a “spect-actor”, can try to change the scene’s negative outcome by introducing different courses of action, and the remaining actors on stage react accordingly, in character. One of the hardest things to get right about forum theatre isn’t just the narrative porosity of the premise, but the facilitation process that now takes place, live, with nervous non-performers. “The difficulty and complexity of life’s obstacles and oppressions must be fully acknowledged and not ignored,” wrote Singaporean film scholar Kenneth Paul Tan on the challenges of effective forum theatre, “or else the exercise will be counterproductive and even harmful if simplistic solutions are attempted in real life.” In forum theatre, you quickly learn that no issue exists in isolation; tugging on the thread of one problem leads you to the tangled web of another. You also quickly learn that talking about an issue is only part of the process. It’s when you step into someone else’s shoes that the hypotheticals end and the hard work begins. Done well, forum theatre feels like democracy in practice.

Suhaila M Sanif as a doting Mak (left) and Faudhil Daud playing Fadli in “Here Where You Were” by Matter.Less. Photograph courtesy of Matter.Less

What we also quickly learn is that good facilitation can transform a quiet Singaporean crowd into passionate, invested spect-actors. It’s here that the decades-long practice of participatory theatre honed by The Necessary Stage (and their socially engaged sister company Drama Box) pays off. Co-facilitators Adib Kosnan and Chng Yi Kai cut their teeth with both groups, and while forum theatre hasn’t been staged by the Fringe in years, it’s gained plenty of traction among Singaporean theatremakers for its rehearsals for real life. The night I attend, many of the polytechnic students in the audience are keen to replace Leena, whose outsider status they initially took as a plus. The various Leenas’ well-meaning meddling, however, would trigger something ferociously, almost ferally protective in Mak. Performer Suhaila so embodies her character’s motivations and fears that one deflated spect-actor, returning to her seat, shakes her head and declares to the rest of us: “The mother is scary, you guys!” 

But deflation isn’t a renewable resource in interactive theatre, and hopelessness can be corrosive. The two facilitators, whose role is also to keep an eye on the bigger picture and the broader mood of the audience, are sensitive to these undercurrents and would draw from a wide facilitative toolkit to get spect-actors to try different approaches, or nudge performers to reveal their characters’ internal monologues for clarity and context. Good facilitation is also about good instincts: Adib, in particular, seems to be preternaturally perceptive about when to intervene, letting things run just long enough for audience members to develop a relationship with their on-stage family, but not too long that we feel stuck or shorn of all empathy for troubled characters. At just 90 minutes long, “Here Where You Were” almost feels too short; similarly, audience members were so caught up in the first two forum theatre pieces staged by The Necessary Stage in 1993 that they had to be coaxed to leave. “Nobody wanted to go home until [Alvin] Tan stepped in to announce that the theatre had to be closed for the night,” went a review in ST.

In these forum theatre set-ups, both the subject matter and the experience of replacing characters can be unrelenting and depleting. Adib and Chng may have been sculpting the on-stage emotional environment in rapid real time, but Matter.Less had much more time to prepare the show’s off-stage emotional architecture for the audience. “Here Where You Were” comes with not just a content warning, but also two counsellors on-site, a sectioned-off quiet space away from the sensorial assault of the theatre, and a stuffed toy for every single audience member, participant or not. I don’t feel triggered by any of the themes, but still find myself squeezing my emotional support soft toy throughout the show.

If “Here Where You Were” cocoons us so that we might tackle uncomfortable topics from a comfortable space, “Motherland” takes the opposite tack. Director Noor Effendy Ibrahim drags us into a darkened womb of dread: there’s a punching bag strung from the ceiling, military-issue duffel bags strewn across the floor, red pendant lights bathing the black box theatre in their eerie glow. Sonic artist Isyraf and vocal artist Rosemainy Buang’s haunting Javanese melodies conjure sonic wastelands in the air, above the percussive metronome of performer Irfan Kasban’s relentless panting. 

Violence—and the possibility of violence—is everywhere. 

“Motherland” introduces us to a very different kind of dominating mother. How far will you go in your loyalty to a motherland when your enemy could be your brother? The show is a thinly veiled allusion to Israel’s war on Gaza, and Effendy’s adamance for brown bodies inflicting emotional and physical violence on one another onstage is no accident. The former artistic director of The Substation has always occupied the fringes of local performance-making, whether by fate or design, and has also always been interested in how pain is stored and purged from the body, particularly the brown Malay body. 

(from left) Performers Irfan Kasban (Soldier A), Bada Jabari (Soldier B) and Mish’aal (Dog) in Motherland by Very Shy Gurl by Fendy. Photograph courtesy of Laydiio

Effendy’s plays are often populated by inarticulate and isolated individuals, drawn to each other in strange permutations and subversions of our taken-for-granted structures of relationship. Often you can’t tell if his assemblies of characters are friends, lovers, rivals or kin, or even what species they are, human or otherwise. A dog character will frequently make an appearance, initially moving through the human world as a mute observer, but often eventually revealing themselves as the work’s moral conscience. His work uses the fragility of the flesh as a canvas upon which inherited and communal pain might materialise. Whips, gags, restraints, blindfolds, clamps, pulleys, actors tearing chunks off a dangling lung of beef with their teeth—in his work, we see it all.

From this body of work, Effendy has accumulated an inventory of gestures, images and relationship dynamics, whose repetitions and iterations—whether staged with established companies Cake Theatre or Teater Ekamatra, or under akulah BIMBO SAKTI (Effendy’s previous moniker), or his new(er) interdisciplinary collective Very Shy Gurl—border on the obsessive. Every work feels like he’s picking at the scabs of racial inequity, political persecution and religious excommunication, and digging into them so deeply that they’re no longer scars but stigmata. Perhaps Effendy is showing us how, after years of provocation, the provoker has no better tools, and the provoked so numb they have even less reason to listen.

In “Motherland”, one soldier holds another hostage as a war rages around them. Bada Jabari’s Soldier B is fizzing with an almost simian kinetic energy; he crouches on a bed frame, squats on chairs, darts from one end of the stage to the other. Irfan Kasban’s Soldier A, shackled at the wrists and ankles, is much more static, and equal parts resigned and enraged. The dog character here is played by Mish’aal, ambling helplessly between humans, his body language more fluent than the stilted dialogue between his human counterparts. The clunky cadence of the characters’ declamatory statements about the war, offering vague context about the horrors they’re more broadly trapped by, pale in comparison to Effendy’s practised sophistication in terms of mise-en-scene and his knowledge of his performers’ physicalities.

I’ve written about Effendy’s choreography of control, especially the dominant-submissive dynamic among his constellations of characters that shifts with (and within) every scene. There’s the widely held assumption that a dom partner will have power over a sub, but in reality the opposite might be true. In a non-carnal context, James C Scott coined the term “weapons of the weak” to describe the armoury of quiet strategies of refusal and defiance deployed by peasants in a northern Malaysian village against their landowners and employers. Scott, an anthropologist, described how this underclass retains their facade of dignity and agency through “foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth”, all means of maintaining social and cultural decorum while silently undermining those who extract labour, taxes, rent and profits from them.

But if Effendy means to reimagine the homoerotic, sado-masochistic tensions and intimacies between two soldiers fighting on opposing sides, it still ends up feeling like a one-sided affair, and we feel very little sympathy for the inadvertent villain because he never relinquishes his power. There’s an almost unbearable scene where Soldier B (Bada), aggressor from start to finish, flogs Soldier A (Irfan) exactly 32 times, and we’re made to confront the thwack of a belt on flesh and the raw, red lines that form on Irfan’s back in full view. Effendy’s been critiqued for the brutality and sexual innuendo in his work, and amidst increased discussions around intimacy coordination, trauma-informed rehearsal processes and disproportionately distributed care labour in the arts in Singapore, questions over his go-to portrayals of violence have become more frequent. 

I don’t doubt that performance can bring us to the brink of terror and return us safely back into our bodies, and I relish being confronted by what I otherwise may not be made to see. After all, to be a theatremaker is to be that rare intermediary between the sacred and profane, to stand on the threshold and be a conduit for a group of strangers to share in the communitas of the ritual is of performance. What’s more important to me is the integrity of rehearsal processes, and if performers feel safe and prepared to tackle difficulty, whether physically, mentally or emotionally. I’m unsure if it’s just me, but I read an odd tension between the two soldiers; their violence feels careful and over-choreographed, almost as if the performers don’t trust each other (which feels markedly different from a performed distrust between characters). 

Each of these productions handles our experience of encountering trauma differently. We’re mothered by them in a whole spectrum of ways, whether it’s the helicopter mum or the negligent one. Here, the terror of parenthood hinges on how much to let your child go, and how much to hold them close. 

In “Oo-woo” by The Necessary Stage, it’s the children-turned-caregivers who can’t decide how much their mother needs. Younger daughter Hanna (Farah Lola) and favoured older brother Haris (Yazid Jalil) are grappling with their mother’s (a heartbreaking Dalifah Shahril) slow spiral into the clutches of dementia. The northern star in Mak’s bewildering new life is Tiong, her pet koel, from whose distinctive pre-dawn call the work takes its title (“oo-woo! oo-woo!”). The lost bird becomes a heavy-handed refrain—and metaphor—for her progressive loss of core memories and key relationships, and ultimately the family’s loss of the mother they know.

An interracial relationship also occupies the family’s caregiving debates, this time through the lens of gendered care labour. Hanna, who’s studying for her nursing degree, is resentful about how much her “guardian angel” older brother gets away with not doing and, conversely, his Chinese wife Amelia’s (Isabella Chiam) over-compensatory attempts to help the family out. Chiam plays all the outsider characters in this small universe, from a social worker to a visiting doctor, and her anxious Amelia plasters the walls with post-its, buys take-out dinners for everyone, and attempts to rearrange her entire life to be accepted by the family she married into while refusing to accept that she never will. 

But there’s some tenderness to be had in “Oo-woo”. (Effendy was also the set designer for this production, and the warm glow of his tiered, naturalist HDB flat is a bit of a shock after the gloom of no man’s land.) This is playwright Raimi Safari’s most sensitive domain, and he chooses to lean into a more intersectional female solidarity. At the close of the play, the two women—one daughter, one daughter-in-law—thaw their frosty relationship as they giggle and commiserate over Mak’s “boy mom” tendencies, and how anak emas Haris can do no wrong. Director Mohd Fared Jainal has a powerhouse ensemble to work with, and he knows this, allowing his cast to revolve around the astral draw of Dalifah’s maternal sun. 

(from left) Farah Lola (Hanna), Dalifah Shahril (Mak), Isabella Chiam (Amelia) and Yazid Jalil (Haris) in “Oo-woo” by The Necessary Stage. Photograph courtesy of Tuckys Photography

How might we relieve trauma without reliving it? So many of the characters in these works are constrained by their scripts, but also the broader socio-political structures in which they are housed. Each of their maternal figures bestows a loyalty and love upon their children and citizens that their charges often do not know how to receive or reciprocate. 

We see the gravitational pull of the black holes of trauma and wonder if these characters will ever be free; they remain trapped in cycles of repetition that promise them a freedom they will never get. Audience members revisit scenes again and again in “Here Where You Were”, fastforwarding their characters through different possibilities and ending up with worse results. In “Oo-woo”, as her cognition declines, Mak can’t even remember the previous times she’s repeated herself. Effendy has been attempting to exorcise Malay minority trauma in every single one of his plays, and in “Motherland” the ghosts and demons of the brown body, even under the repeated crack of a whip, refuse to leave. 

As these characters—and us audience members—circle this vortex of pain, I wonder about how “revolutionary” performance could be in forcing us to confront the pain of others and emancipate us from these well-worn trauma paths. I remember speaking with veteran theatre practitioners from The Necessary Stage and Drama Box about the potentials and pitfalls of performance, and how none of them were under the illusion of seeing dramatic change in their lifetimes. Radical hope for change, to them, was an investment in a far longer timescale. They’d put in the work, as they always did. They would wrestle with the urgencies that their communities faced. If even a single person in the audience felt equipped with a newfound agency, they’d take the win. A younger generation of dynamic theatremakers would inherit and continue their cause. Change is cumulative, and so is recovery and healing.

“Revolution” also isn’t just the imposition of a new and better system over an old one. If we think about a “revolution” as the act of revolving, as the fixed orbital journey of a celestial body, our Earth around a difficult Sun, and how it returns us to where we began—then I suppose each of these works brings us back to square one. But not quite. We return transformed from having stayed the course. If survival is a creative act, as writer and cancer survivor Suleika Jaouad put it, then to survive trauma isn’t just the experience of having survived the encounter with death or terror, but how through the revolutionary repetition of the stage—where every performance is the same, but also different every single time—we may be reborn.

Corrie Tan is Jom’s arts editor. She is also a senior lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and director of the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network. 

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