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 partner, 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…
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