Playwright Myle Yan Tay takes an intimate look at the realities and conundrums faced by Malay and Indian men in Singapore.
What are the implications of growing up in Singapore if you’re an Indian or Malay male archetype? Will you be the butt of jokes at school because of the colour of your skin, the traditions you practise or the religious teachings you subscribe to?
Will society have underwhelming expectations of how you’ll turn out, based on race-based statistics that are less than encouraging? Will you have a chip on your shoulder and fight to prove you’re not a cultural stereotype, or simply fall through the cracks and become one?
Loaded questions to ask, perhaps. But if you sat through 1h 50 minutes (without intermission) of Checkpoint Theatre’s latest play at the Drama Centre Black Box, these are just some of the thinking points that will crawl through the dark spaces in your head.
Written by Myle Yan Tay and directed by Huzir Sulaiman, Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes sees five friends reunite on the eve of an election. And they are not your run-of-the-mill, everyday people.
These brown boys are marginalised folks within an already marginalised segment of society. Minorities within a minority group. Outliers, you might say. Anomalies.
You have Fizzy (played by Adib Kosnan), who runs an anti-establishment IG page with his boyfriend of another race. You also have Scott (played by Ebi Shankara), a Toa Payoh resident who fled to America in the name of blind love after marrying a White woman.
There’s Adam (played by Shahid Nasheer), the sensitive but jaded queer professor who spits academic facts, not opinions. He’s worlds apart from Dev (played by Krish Natarajan), the smack-talking, hip-hop artist who’s all about that TikTok life.
And last but not least, you have Tesh (played by Gosteloa Spancer), the biracial leader of the pack. And quite literally so, because he’s on the cusp of possibly earning a seat in parliament as a member of the opposition party.
Brown boy solidarity
A friendly get-together at Tesh’s residence quickly takes a dark turn when he reveals that someone had threatened to release a racially-charged video that will sabotage his chances at the election.
In a desperate attempt to save his political campaign and reputation, he requested for each member of his brown boy communion to give a testimony on video. But will they put their necks on the line in the name of friendship?
Things get very, very interesting when the subject of brown boy solidarity comes into play. Is Tesh simply asking his long-time friends for help, or is he merely using them as token ambassadors of the larger communities they represent?
Skeletons in the closet
Yan gets brownie points (no pun intended) for creating complex characters that come with their own emotional baggage and traumas. As they engage in verbal sparring to settle their ideological disputes, dirty laundry gets aired and unhealed wounds get exposed.
You get to witness Scott crumble in a drunken stupor as he realises that white isn’t always right, nod empathetically when Adam explains why his soul is tired of taking a moral stand, and see Dev step out of his playboy persona to question his moral fabric as a human being.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. When Adam starts beatboxing, and Dev suddenly breaks into an original hip-hop anthem that Fizzy wrote for them back in school, you’ll be clapping along and finding yourself wanting – no, needing – that track on your Spotify playlist.
You will appreciate the comic relief that the characters bring, especially when tension in the air intensifies with every new horror and revelation that comes to light. Afterall, art imitates life, and if you don’t laugh about your problems, you might literally just break down and cry.
The brown boy experience
If you leave the theatre with a black cloud over your head, you’re not alone. There is a lot to unpack, and how you process this play depends on whether you’re an outsider looking in, or a brown boy yourself who’s confronted with your own truths, realities and insecurities.
But the whole point of theatre – particularly Checkpoint Theatre – is to get you thinking, and this is a brilliant tragicomic that offers insight into how the male fraction of Singapore’s minority group navigate their way through life in this day and age.
Instead of creating caricatures that depict the realities of the Indian or Malay man in an overdone, reductive or cringe-worthy fashion, Yan and Huzir have done a skilful job at showcasing the nuances of the brown boy experience in a refreshing light.
But what is the brown boy experience? Is it about submitting to the role of victim and subjecting oneself to racially-insensitive jokes, or flipping the narrative and taking back one’s power by being the one who tells the jokes. That is for you to mull over, boys and girls.
P.S. We cannot help but take note of how Adib Kosnan’s character was considering starting a platform where he interviews everyday people in Singapore. We highly support his newfound aspiration 😉
Review by: Arman Shah