“Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner” by Checkpoint Theatre

Image: Checkpoint Theatre/SIFA

Minor spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the play: I talk about plot points in some detail.

Several years ago, I was in Yangon for an intensive Burmese language course. This was before their watershed general elections in 2015, the first in decades, and before the simmering, seething tinderbox in Rakhine state would implode and precipitate the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis. Myanmar’s always had border trouble, with pockets of civil war spiking and ebbing in the decades since independence in 1948 as minority groups vied for power. The country is pocked with internally displaced person (IDP) camps, and I’ve often seen my Myanmar friends post up photos of their protests against the use violence and sexual assault within these camps on social media.

A charming, funny aid worker sat down next to me in the classroom, and we started talking about what led us to participate in this language course. I told her about my Burmese husband, who’s in the non-profit tech sector and often works with humanitarian groups. She told me, oh, actually, my husband’s of Karen ethnicity, and I speak fluent Karen, but not Burmese. Then she added, actually, he’s with the Karen National Union (which is a political organisation with an armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army), and the reason I could make it to Yangon this fortnight is because they’ve recently signed a ceasefire with Myanmar, and my husband’s helping with the negotiations. I didn’t quite know what to say. She showed me pictures of her husband and their children, grinning excitedly at the camera.

I thought about this brief interaction a fair amount after stumbling out of Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner, possibly the best work I’ve seen by Checkpoint Theatre co-founder Huzir Sulaiman, a Malaysian playwright whom Singapore has subsequently also claimed as her own. Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner begins with the sheer magnitude of the horrors of conflict, and a massive trauma on a collective scale – then sets it together with the horrific story of one woman’s encounter with an institution meant to stand for our collective humanity. In the weeks since encountering this performance at the Singapore International Festival of Arts, I’ve felt it lodged in my heart, stuck in my throat, a kind of resistant splinter that works its way deeper into your flesh the more you try to tease it out.

We’re in what feels like an overtly temporary space, the rust-coloured, corrugated insides of a shipping container, perhaps, or some kind of prefabricated office. We’re never told which region we’re in, but assembled within this refugee camp is a loose, transnational collection of humanitarian workers, their accents moving between Southeast Asia, Oceania, the United States, and the United Kingdom. They’re from the Organisation for Emergency Assistance (the OEA, a kind of United Nations or Peace Corps fictional composite), and they’re never identified by their countries, but it’s made clear that they’re all from developed ones, including Singapore – a country that has historically never accepted refugees (except for the one time) even as it attempts to compensate for this uncompassionate stance by being exceptionally emphatic about how it provides “humanitarian assistance” in other ways.

Who are the people drawn to being “mercenaries or missionaries”, as the play puts it, or are they just plain “mad”? From the macho security dude from the American south to the “white horse” daughter of a significant humanitarian leader, the group embodies the various tropes of the humanitarian worker: there’s also the Brit who’s a stickler for rules and perpetually managing bureaucracy, and the pragmatic Southeast Asian who understands the lubricating power of soft corruption that will, in fact, help you get the job done in certain contexts. The play understands that it’s using archetypes to sketch out an environment foreign to most of its Singaporean audience (and arguably to most of its international audience). And while I initially chafed at this shorthand, I soon began to realise that every decision, even the seemingly mundane, or the seemingly stereotypical, fit into a larger interlocking picture, and set in motion a twin set of narratives that collide later on with the kind of force that removes the breath from your body.

The characters begin to gain flesh as you’re given glimpses of their snatched phonecalls and private conversations. You begin to understand the weight of a decision to redeploy certain security forces, or the use of blackmail for a seemingly innocuous logistics transaction. The play at first seems to hinge on an insurgent attack on the refugee camp and the kidnapping of the (white) man in charge of the humanitarian team, moving between naturalistic flashbacks and the present day marked by surreal interludes of stylized movement – the way we try to piece together the fragments of our memory after a traumatic event, the way we try to keep ourselves to the before and the after, the way we avoid what happens in-between. I wondered about these stylized gestures at first, but they quickly made sense to me when the play takes a turn and you realise it’s not just about a man held hostage. It’s about how we find ourselves held hostage by the very institutions that have pledged themselves to our humanity, and you wonder how you’ve become a dehumanised cog in the machine all the same. The linchpin of the play is the fallout from a sexual assault – never revealed gratuitously, but told to us through symbolic movement, the gestural language that director Claire Wong has slowly and gradually acquainted us with so that we’re fluent in its vocabulary when the time comes. This includes every click of a pen and every flap of a clipboard – underlining the contracts we sign on paper or on the tongue, and the consent we give and withdraw.

It may seem easy for a commercial corporation in a peace-time environment to make decisions about excommunicating sexual predators and perpetrators – but what happens when you’re in a volatile war context where you need every pair of boots on the ground you can muster, where you need to make life-or-death executive decisions, and where and the only person who can negotiate with hostile militia or is worth a ransom is… the white male perpetrator? Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner makes us sit with the awful discomfort of these impossible decisions and compromises.

In the conversations I’ve had with other artsgoers and audience members after experiencing this performance, there’s been a persistent line of critique – that the work glosses over the refugee experience and the difficulty of that particular story to tell when it comes to the most marginal and marginalised of communities. There has been powerful, incisive work about the refugee crisis our generation is confronting, including the critically acclaimed The Jungle (about the infamous camp in Calais) at the Young Vic, or Ahmed Tobasi’s moving autobiographical story as a Palestinian refugee in the Jenin camp on the West Bank, And Here I Am. But this isn’t my critique of Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner, because I think it does exist in the larger constellation of performance around these concerns. It doesn’t pretend to be a work about refugees; its purpose is the nomadic network of unsung and deeply flawed intermediaries. A privileged transnational group of people, but an overlooked one no less.

This, to me, is a story about caregivers who must maintain a kind of impossible stoicism to get through relentless air strikes and the endless threat of death by disease, conflict, starvation. I wasn’t a fan of some of the performances or character interpretations, but that felt substantially less important to me. An aid worker from Indonesia told a group of us, during a post-show discussion, that she was taken aback by how astonishingly accurate the work was (I really am in awe of the research that went into this). Her only wish was that the national staff – the invaluable local fixers and intermediaries and translators who keep any international aid work running – had been given more visibility in the play, where they were relegated to lines in a conversation. At the same time I’m also wary of a kind of exploitative desire to see marginal bodies and lives revealed and divulged to us on stage, at worst akin to poverty porn. The feminist ethnographer Elizabeth Enslin, quoting her colleague Judith Stacey, cautions us:

Engagement with people for the purpose of writing ethnography invariably leads to a certain amount of betrayal and manipulation. “The lives, loves, and tragedies that fieldwork informants share with a researcher are ultimately data-grist for the ethnographic mill, a mill that has a truly grinding power”.

Enslin, Elizabeth. (1994). “Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limitations of Ethnography” in Cultural Anthropology, 9(4), pp. 537-658.

And sure, this play does focus on a group that isn’t particularly marginal: they’re a largely white, largely first world, largely well-educated, largely at-least-middle-class motley crew of staffers. But they’re also grappling with the same concerns and convictions around care and compassion, and what’s revealed is that aid work isn’t a kind of glorified white saviour narrative, but that this work also entails the drudgery of stultifying email exchanges to wrangle a tiny bit more funding, an endless parade of signatures and forms from the head office, and other minutiae around toilets, celebrity visits, lorries. I’m reminded of the extraordinary ordinariness of my aid worker language school classmate – who as a first impression came across as any other white NGO staff member who’s part of the constantly-shifting “expatriate” (read: white, first world, educated, etc) community in Yangon, who rotate through three-year postings, arriving from Afghanistan and then leaving for Washington DC. And yet she’s connected to the insanity and impossibility of a world where anything could be set alight, where she’s doing the best she can for the family and the people she’s found a home with. Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner is an homage to this intersection of the institutional, the impossible, the intimate…

Brief credits

Playwright: Huzir Sulaiman

Director: Claire Wong

Cast: Dawn Cheong, Emil Marwa, Rayanna Dibs, Cheryl Chitty Tan, Brendon Fernandez, Jo Tan, Daisy Irani, Yazid Jalil

Musical performers: .gif (Chew Wei Shan, Nurudin Sadali) and Anthea Julia Chua

Assistant director: Anthea Julia Chua

Set designer: Wong Chee Wai

Lighting designer: Lim Woan Wen

Sound designer & engineer: Shah Tahir

Costume designer: Laichan

Stage manager: Keira Lee

Production manager: Izz Sumono

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“Provenance” – Autopoetics

Dear Laura, Chelsea and Maiya,

My husband accumulates things. When we first moved in together, I went through boxes and boxes of his stuff. Please, I said, you have to get rid of this shattered iPhone 3 with a cracked screen that’s been dead for five years. What is this box of random cables, sticky and bent from being taped together in awkward shapes? These clothes are stippled with mildew – when was the last time you wore them in sunlight? We sat on the floor and unpacked the bits of his life that had been boxed up and forgotten but he’d refused to let go of. Or perhaps they’d refused to let him go. Agatha sifts through the her mother Alice’s labyrinthine hoard – with infinitely more patience than I would have – each remembered object whispering its name next to stacks of bills and foreclosure notices. What stories can an assemblage of objects tell, all these “nameless, shapeless things?” Rarely has an invisible landscape felt so visible, so tangible to me. It took me some time to locate myself in the landscape of things the three of you were narrating, but once I’d arrived I felt as though I might turn some of these items over in my palm, smudge the dust off with my fingers, and put them back on a high shelf. 

There was something so precise about the way the interlocking stories of these three women were pieced together, almost as if you were sculpting your own object, chiselling it out of the darkness and out of our collective imaginations. At first I mistook this choreographed precision for detachment, but then I realised you were excavating something incredibly fragile and tender from underneath it all, the way a surgeon might cut through a sheath of skin to get to that quivering, wet-slicked organ beneath. 

As Alice’s hoarding disorder begins to chip away at the borders of her sense of self, and her objects begin to puppeteer her and dictate her every decision and gesture, I begin to wonder what it is that anchors us to our sense of reality, and if once that slips we fumble for what we can actually hold on to, like the marble sculpture of a head of a noblewoman with an oxidised tear stain from 1st to 3rd century CE. Then there’s the tangle of what we gift and what we sell and what we own and the sediment of sentiment that’s settled in each and every item that becomes harder to separate from what the item is. I wonder if that’s why we laugh during the auction at the objects on the block, at the absurdity of their unimaginable price but also at how what is priceless may change hands so easily within an absurd commercial machine; what is heavy with worth may be conjured out of something so lightly discarded – the crushed and twisted newspaper sculptures of Romulus and Remus and the pair of bronze Etruscan warriors. But we also inscribe the objects you’ve presented us with layers and layers of meaning, that these newspaper sculptures are also the feet and arms of a mother putting on makeup in a moment of vulnerability. Our relationships with objects are deeply marked, Provenance reminds me, quietly, and (unsentimental as I am!) reminds me of the investments I’ve made in each item I own – or once owned. And I think that’s probably why I loved that the black box was papered over with classifieds and obituaries – all these things for sale, about to be lost, set against all the people we’ve actually lost.

When I was an undergraduate, I enrolled in a puppetry and object theatre class. My 21-year-old self, trying to be clever, brought in a hand-held mirror and made it behave bashfully, shyly, in front of its audience. But every time I looked at that mirror after that workshop I wondered what it thought of itself. We’d explored the lives of so many things – a table fan, a small painting, a flashlight, a set of cutlery – working within the constraints of how little we actually owned as students. There’s a magic to how much you’ve constructed out of the simplest of objects, that a line of red string can be a framing device or a tangle of emotions or the strangling red tape of an institution. I gasped a little, together with many other people, when all of you raked up the newspaper covering the stage at the end – that’s how much we’d invested in it being there, how much life we’d given it.Maybe all this is why I let my husband keep that dead, cracked iPhone, which is still in the bottom of a box we haven’t unpacked in the five years we’ve been living in this apartment. He would have owned it in 2010, just when each of us had started our professional lives in our early 20s, when a smartphone was still a small marvel and a huge investment. Writing this I realise I’ve never asked him what it meant to him, and why it whispered to be kept. So I texted him.

****

Me, [03.11.18 13:01] this is random but
Me, [03.11.18 13:01] why did you keep your dead iphone 3
Me, [03.11.18 13:01] like i’m just wondering out loud because i rmb telling you to throw it away
Me, [03.11.18 13:01] do we still have it?
Him, [03.11.18 13:08] Hmm I think I wanted to boot it up again with android
Him, [03.11.18 13:08] But obviously I would never have to time to do it
Me, [03.11.18 13:08] was it special to you haha
Me, [03.11.18 13:08] i’m such an unsentimental person
Him, [03.11.18 13:08] Hmm not special in that sense
Him, [03.11.18 13:09] I just thought that I could give it a second life

****

I think what I’m trying to say about Provenance is – thank you for giving all our objects that second life.

Corrie