Regardless of Race & Language

Published on 31 August 2015

Singapore’s stage actors are increasingly skilled and versatile. But can even the best actor blast racial barriers?


“Sometimes I don’t get cast in Indian roles because I don’t look Indian enough: I’m told they want a darker-skinned actor. And I’ve never been cast as the Chinese boy-next-door; I just don’t look it. So yes, my race has been an impediment to casting,” muses Dwayne Lau, an affable, familar half-Chinese, half-Indian face in the local theatre scene.

Effervescent actress Gloria Tan agrees. “When I was studying at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, we had a choice to do either Malay Theatre or Chinese Theatre. I walked into the Chinese Theatre registration room and someone said, ‘Come over here,’ in perfect Mandarin. I did a U-turn out! My Chinese is terrible and I just felt I wouldn’t belong. So I chose to do Malay theatre and I worked very stubbornly at learning the language. But the fact is, there aren’t many roles for Chinese girls in Malay-language shows.”

Thankfully, the Singapore stage is increasingly practising cross-cultural casting — casting actors who are of a different race from the characters they’re meant to play. That’s why you may have seen Tan in many Malay productions on stage and screen (both the small screen and big screen, in such movies as Banting), playing characters named Azizah, Aisah… even Ahmad. Lau is fresh out of W!ld Rice’s Hotel, where he took on a multitude of races from Filipino to Malay to, yes, Indian. He will soon be playing an even greater variety of races, including Chinese and Caucasian, in the upcoming Chestnuts 50, this year’s edition of the annual spoof show skewering Singapore’s major events.

Another actor familiar with cross-cultural casting is Erwin Shah Ismail. Other than playing Filipinos or Eurasians, he’s also played a presumably Chinese character, Xiao Song, in Mandarin musical If There’re Seasons.

“I only started playing my first Malay roles this year, after having been in the business for quite a while,” says the lanky actor, fresh from the Malay play Yusof, who has been hot property in the English theatre scene.

“From my experience, I’d say Singapore theatre is quite colour-blind. If the actor can speak the language and can perform the role well, he’s right for the part and how he looks doesn’t matter. As it is, theatre calls for suspension of disbelief — in musicals, people burst into song in mid-conversation, but people don’t complain that’s not real — so why can’t you believe that a Malay boy could be called Xiao Song?”

Actor/director Najib Soiman goes a step further: he believes cross-cultural casting can not only be acceptable, but desirable. For the upcoming revival of his Malay play, Ma’ma Yong: About Nothing Much to Do, Najib has cast Chinese, Caucasian and even Afro-Caribbean actors alongside Malay ones.

“I’m using Mak Yong (a traditional form of dance-drama from northern Malaysia) as one basic element in this piece. It’s a dying art form, very unfamiliar to Singapore, and I want to share it with not only Malay performers but those of other cultures as well. And hopefully, the Malay performers can learn other skills from their colleagues,” Najib explains.

“As an artist, the work process is more important for me than the performance. In the process, we’re coming together and sharing. Since we come from such different backgrounds, we can share different forms with each other and add these to our vocabularies for future use.

“Of course, there are challenges for the actors: speaking the language well with the right intonation and understanding what you are saying. This doesn’t mean just understanding the meaning of the words, you have to understand what your character is feeling, what he is trying to achieve. So, for certain shows with race-specific issues where the actor needs to have empathy for that issue, not just sympathy, only the people who live it can really understand it.”

It don’t matter if you’re Black or White Both the upcoming Ma’ma Yong and If There’re Seasons feature a multicultural cast, who might play races different from their own.
Sama Sama but Different Najib Soiman and Gloria Tan are both stalwarts of the Malay-language theatre scene, even though one is ethnically Chinese.
Under My Skin Actor Dwayne Lau eschews ethnic-correctness to play a range of roles, including a K-Pop dancer. 

Lau adds, “Like it or not, there are semiotics attached to certain races. If a Chinese person plays a Malay-Muslim, the audience won’t think she’s playing a Malay character, they’ll think this character is Chinese. When did she convert? It’s all about the message of the show and whether the casting will serve or distract from the message. There are certain shows where it’s okay, since there is a lot of suspension of disbelief, like in pantomimes where magical things happen as part of the plot. But otherwise, skin colour is significant. Some Flipinos would be accepted by the audience as Chinese characters, but not an Indian actor who’s on the other side of the palette.”

What all four actors agree on, however, is that colour-blind casting is more accepted when the characters being played are minority-race ones. “If you’re doing Shakespeare, like Hamlet, which is about Danish royalty, people accept that you cast Chinese and Malays and Indians since Shakespeare has universal themes… and also you might not be able to find the right all-white ensemble here,” says Tan. “But if you cast an Indian person as a Chinese character, even with perfect speech and accent, then I think people start to ask questions.

“So there is still a double standard. But things are changing, people are becoming more colour-blind all round. In the past, there was a reporter who refused to ask my name or even make eye contact with me when he was interviewing me and my two fellow cast-mates. Now, audience members come up to me on the street and speak Malay to me.”

Najib agrees. “If Kumar sings a Hokkien song, will audiences accept it? They will, right? The key is to perform other cultures in a way that is not insulting, and to work hard and do it well. As actors, we can play with our accent, our style, our physicality. But what is most important in any show is the message and that the actors are the ones who communicate that message. What actors represent onstage are voices — not races, not cultures.”

Euro-vision Erwin Shah Ismail often transforms into European characters in productions of Shakespeare, or stagings of classic fairy tales like The Frog Prince. 

Chestnuts 50 is on at the Drama Centre Theatre from 17-27 September.
Ma’Ma Yong: About Nothing Much to Do opens October.

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