Oh, Inverted World
Posted on 12 March 2013
It wasn’t easy writing this. There was prejudice all around, from those who balked at the idea of an anti-queer musical without knowing what it was really about, to prejudice exhibited by the folks responsible for staging this (when I actually went to watch it), to the prejudice of my fellow audience members chuckling at the most non-PC jokes I’ve heard in recent years. So I’ll forgo a proper “introduction” and dive right in.
Asmara Songsang, written and directed by Rahman Adam, is about the lives of the LGBT community encapsulated into a neat little microcosm. Three friends, who identify themselves as Nazirah, Latipah and Karim, lead a gang of queer delinquents. Headquartered in a public park conveniently situated between neighborhood homes and the mosque, they throw raucous parties that last through the night, fuelled by really loud music, substance abuse and casual sexual encounters. This then incurs the wrath of the local religious leaders and the residents, who try their best to advise these lost souls and lead them to the path of righteousness. Along the way, a young under-aged girl (Nani) is pressured into joining their gang.
It is revealed that a major incentive for the gang’s behavior (aside from worldly thrills) is monetary rewards from their invisible “big boss”, who orders them to picket for the rights of LGBTs to be recognised and to trash public facilities. Nani enjoys the lifestyle at first, but later repents while singing a tearful ballad. Not allowed to return to her family, fights break out between the religious and the queer. Eventually, all the queers are struck dead by lightning, save for Nazirah, Latipah and Karim, who see the err of their ways and revert to being Nasir, Latip and Karimah. After a brief lecture on the hideous wrongs of not being heterosexual, everybody joins them on stage with Malaysian flags, singing a rousing rendition of a song dedicated to 1Malaysia.
[That lengthy synopsis was for the benefit of those who couldn’t make the performance (the tickets were free, thus ran out very quickly), and to simply lay out the numerous topics of the story that they managed to squeeze into a 90 minute play.]
First of all, the good points. There were some solid performances by the cast, especially the veterans. Dato’ Jalaluddin Hassan and Razak Ahmad were on point as stern ustazs, tutting with the poise of seasoned preachers. Radhi Khalid was my favorite – his Nazirah was by far the most confidently performed, especially Nazirah’s exasperation over having incompetent underlings. Kamal Adli stole the show for most of the audience with his well-timed comedic ad-libs as Jamal, the local youth leader.
The show was also pretty entertaining, if crass humor is your thing. Rahman Adam decided to use comedy to get the anti-LGBT message across (he wrote and directed recent comedy romp Man Sewel Datang KL), as he says that Malaysians don’t like heavy subjects. So to get the audience to listen to this important message, he wrapped it up in a musical comedy. And for the audience, it worked. (Almost) Everyone had a rollicking good time.
Now, the not-so-good points.
There was almost nothing from the LGBT’s side of the story that wasn’t hyperbolic, and there wasn’t a scene that wasn’t utterly condescending in nature.
Let’s call it what it is: this is an all-out propagandic play. If the people involved in this play want to rail against LGBTs, that’s fine. Really. Everybody has a right to say what they feel is right. But as wrong as they feel the idea of LGBTs is, they have an even more wrong idea of what being a non-heterosexual is like. Sure, they don’t fall into heteronormative roles, and that’s earth-shattering to plenty of people. But the research done was so poor — yet presented so conclusively. The queers were all heavily stereotyped into pengkids and bapoks from rich families, educated in the west. There was almost nothing from the LGBT’s side of the story that wasn’t hyperbolic, and there wasn’t a scene that wasn’t utterly condescending in nature.
In addition, the connection that “choosing to be gay” was part of a certain opposition party leader’s plan to topple the country’s morals and unity was forced and weak. All the LGBTs die and repent in the end and then rise to sing a 1Malaysia song? The actors themselves looked uncomfortable during the closing number, waving their flags perfunctorily.
Rahman Adam disclaims that funding was requested from and provided by Kementerian Penerangan, Komunikasi dan Kebudayaan, as part of his way of “doing something for the country”. Fair enough, since the message he wants to send and the message KPKK wants to send are aligned. I suppose a 1Malaysia ditty to drive the point of harmony home needed to be done. There was very little information I could find about the companies presenting this production, other than them being Thrive Edition (whose main business is pastries) and Azra Communciation.
Even if it wasn’t propagandic, there were too many troubling issues. The part that gets to me the most is that according to the playwright, all non-heterosexuals seem to belong to a club. Membership is declared by choosing whether they want to be an L, G, B or T, then a partner (or “baby LGBT” as they call it) for them is found. Any sort of contact with the heteronormative world is cut off — in fact, they’ll fight tooth and nail to keep recruits in their clutches and away from their family. And since they’re immoral and not “normal”, they must of course drink heavily, take drugs, and make out right in public. They actively recruit members to join their side, turning straight people gay, and clearly don’t even live in reality (“Dunia kita dunia fantasi!” declares Nazirah.)
This made me wonder, who are all of these characters based upon then? I have a lovely variety of gay friends, none of whom hit on me more than straight men do, and are tax-paying, valuable members of society who haven’t littered a day in their lives. When asked what his references were, Rahman Adam mentioned “newspaper reports, write-ups” and Irshad Manji’s Allah, Kebebasan & Cinta, which he admitted to only reading the synopsis. He also states that several actors in his play are gay themselves, and that he sat down with them to interview them about their lives. (Said actors were unavailable for comment.)
So, from what I can gather, it’s either the lives of non-heterosexuals in Malaysia are constantly full of debauchery and I’ve been conveniently shielded, or I’ve managed to make friends with the most well-adjusted people in KL who happen to also be queers.
The worst technical fault of all, was that this wasn’t even a musical by the most loose of definitions. Having a few dance numbers and 2 songs does not a musical make. While Istana Budaya’s trend may be to stage musicals, it was perhaps best left as a straight-up play instead of inserting musical inaccuracies. Case in point: the very first song they dance to is Papa Roach’s “Last Resort”, which to my extensive musical knowledge is mostly enjoyed by straight men. More pseudo metal songs came up, interspersed with Brazilian club music, and a few Middle-Eastern sounding numbers that were danced to by Istana Budaya dancers. The only musical part of it that was relatively decent was Nani’s lipsynced ballad at the end, voiced by a nameless “student from Aswara” who had decent range and emotional drive. Here’s a pro-tip: if you want to be “properly” stereotypical, put on an ’80s pop number, KD Lang, or something from a Broadway musical. I, along with my gay friends, would have found that much more believable.
When asked after the show if the play covered as much about the subject of LGBTs as it could, Dato Jalaluddin admits to his credit that there were “a lot of things that need to be identified [about the subject of LGBTs]” and that “a lot of things need to be revised, so we really tackle the subject in a manner that everybody understands.” Rahman Adam himself has stated that the script will be reviewed so as to construct its content more coherently. These revisions will happen before Asmara Songsang goes on a tour of local public universities within the next month or so.
On that note, student access to such a propaganda-filled show should also be carefully done. The night I was there, a large section of the audience was taken up by teenagers from a secondary school in Bangi. One of the boys, S, mentioned that those in school could be “terpengaruh dengan budaya luar, tapi dengan adanya teater ni, kita lebih tau ‘Oh, macam ni rupanya’.” [influenced by foreign cultures, but with this show, we now know what the (LGBT) world is like.] Again, I reiterate. This isn’t what it’s like, not the entire “culture” (as they put it) as a whole. This is as narrow-minded and bigoted a view as one could get. It’s tough to be queer when you’re young in most circumstances. They need people to talk with, not be preached to immediately that this is wrong, wrong, wrong.
If they want LGBTs to listen to their message, they need to listen to what the LGBT community has to say as well.
If they want LGBTs to listen to their message, they need to listen to what the LGBT community has to say as well. I would be less reluctant to accept this play if there was equal space for all sides to voice their concerns, whether in this play itself or in other avenues. Discrimination against queers is already bad enough without adding fire and brimstone — dialogue should and has to be encouraged. LGBTs do not have the same access to the same deep pockets as this performance did, thus have less opportunities to tell their side of the story.
While I admire anybody’s conviction for a cause and respect their right to believe in it, I simply wished that the folks behind Asmara Songsang did much more research into every aspect that went into this “anti-LGBT musical”. I sincerely hope the script revisions will reflect proper research, because this simply wasn’t enjoyable as a musical, funny as a comedy, nor an accurate portrayal of queers as a whole. ∗
Alia Ali is a writer and music teacher. She was a member of Jabatan Kebudayaan’s Tunas Budaya and Koir Kanak-Kanak Kebangsaan programs in the mid-90s.
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