Staging Character and Identity: Documenting "The TRUE Awards"

The prologue of The T.R.U.E. (The Rightful Unifying Excellence) Awards is a gestural extravaganza: One performer drags her feet along the floor as if she is wearing a ball and chain, one shakes hands with an imaginary crowd, and one mimes a glass ceiling above her. Of the seven characters on stage, one stands over the rest on a platform, in a clear position of power: This is Meera Krishnan, past recipient of the T.R.U.E. Awards, played by Tamil theatre actress and dancer Swathi Mahaganapathy.

Five persons standing on a dimly lit stage in various positions. Behind them, on a screen, is the word 'TRUE' in large red font.

The opening scene of The TRUE Awards.

With barely ten weeks from conceptualization to performance, the seven Theatre and Performance Studies students performing in this year's iteration of Theatre Lab have the task of creating a 30-minute performance response to Lim Chor Pee's A White Rose At Midnight. The play tells the story of upper-middle class university students, born and bred in Singapore, who aspire to lead and create a better future for themselves as independence movements swept across the world back in 1964. 

Exactly 60 years later, the company's performance response is an exploration of what has changed since Singapore gained independence in 1965 and became a nation-state of its own - if anything has changed at all. In a country where the racial majority is not the native owner of the land, where the lingua franca - English - is a colonial import, and where the arts and cultural communities have until recently been closely monitored and shaped by the government authorities, what exactly unites us and makes us Singaporean? This performance response attempts to answer that and to reflect on our Singaporean society as it is in 2024.

As a student educated entirely in international schools, Swathi understood firsthand the premise of A White Rose At Midnight, as someone who constantly feels alienated by the Singapore-educated majority in university. Her character, Meera Krishnan, is extremely different from herself in this regard. In an interview, Swathi states, “Meera Krishnan represents the government, and she’s kind of the final authority. She’s always in surveillance mode. That’s her job, and her job constitutes a lot of her identity and characteristics more than her personal life.” 

A person in a suit standing with hands clasped behind their back, watching several other motionless people.

Swathi as Meera Krishnan (middle).

Despite many changes in the characterization and the structure of the story over the weeks, Meera Krishnan continues to be a character that is mostly isolated from the rest by choice - she keeps every candidate at arms’ length, and by the end of the play it becomes clear that her loyalties do not lie with any of the candidates, not even with the ones who are supposedly favored by the government whom she represents. 

In this way, the play strives to reflect on how an overtly impersonal approach to governance and public administration can backfire when the people and the government are inherently disconnected due to a lack of active and truthful communication. At the same time, questions on censorship and the government cannot be addressed separately from the demographic context of Singapore, and that is the basis of this performance response - in a Singapore where practically everyone is different in some way, who gets to rise to the top and make decisions that will affect everyone else?


Who gets to decide what a Singaporean looks like?

"Our identities as Singaporeans are closely tied to the language we speak, the cultures we are exposed to, the education we are brought up with, and so on. Without those things, what would we even be? But then we realize that we actually have no idea what even defines a Singaporean," notes actor and theatre practitioner Jade Ow Yanhui, as she shines a light on the dramaturgical process, where the students of Theatre Lab are expected to document their theatremaking journey throughout the semester. A Hard-of-Hearing actress training in the Michael Chekhov technique at local arts organization ART:DIS, Jade plays the daughter of Sgim Corp conglomerate founder, Jenna Sgim. 

A female-presenting person pointing out with her right hand, looking angry.

Jade as Jenna Sgim (second from left).

Because of her high socioeconomic status, Jenna is close enough to the highest echelons of society to understand that politics is ultimately a dirty game, and she feels compelled to educate her fellow candidates, whom she sees as naive hopefuls who have no idea what is coming for them. At the same time, Jade emphasizes that Jenna Sgim is not a one-note character, “For all her bravado and impenetrability, Jenna Sgim's concealed vulnerabilities reveal themselves in her most human moments. Her family has come a long way from being political opponents to becoming a corporate heavyweight in the global supply chain, but Jenna has not forgotten where they began, and she bears a massive grudge against the government for that.”

With so much of the discourse surrounding their play response being about identity, the seven students are strong proponents of bringing in various aspects of the performers' own identities into the story. Indeed, much of the initial story creation process involved each company member sharing their lived experiences about fitting into the wider Singaporean society, ranging from being part of a minority race, spending a substantial amount of time overseas, as well as feeling shame for not speaking a language, creole or dialect well enough to integrate into this imagined ideal Singaporean community.

Five persons seated in a lecture hall, speaking to each other.

The students in discussion before a workshop session.

But after all of those negotiations, is there really a perfect Singaporean? Who gets to decide what a Singaporean looks like? This is a sentiment echoed unanimously by the entire company, including theatre practitioner Ong Shi Han. Having completed a Diploma in Arts and Theatre Management from Republic Polytechnic and three years in NUS Theatre Studies, Shi Han has become accustomed to navigating the nuances of developing and interrogating ideas in the theatrical space. In The TRUE Awards, Shi Han plays the good-natured and hardworking Tang Ruo Xi, a China-born fresh graduate who has lived in Singapore since she was 6, but only recently attained Singapore citizenship as an adult. 

A female-presenting person in a white shirt, hands open in front of her face, miming reading a book.

Shi Han as Tang Ruo Xi.

Tang Ruo Xi, like every other candidate in the six-way contest for The T.R.U.E. Awards, does not quite fit the idealized stereotype of a "true" Singaporean, and yet she plays mediator to Singapore-born-and-bred community leader Ashwariya (played by Ashie Singh) and overseas-educated Singaporean entrepreneur Sandra Lynn (played by Charmaine Teo), in a clash of accents, identities, and insecurities. Speaking of her character Ruo Xi, Shi Han comments, "Every character represents an aspect of the quintessential idealized Singaporean identity. Ruo Xi is the representation of the early-stage immigrant Singaporean dream, and her belief in meritocracy means that she is uninterested in bringing other people down. She would much rather focus on herself."


Which Singapore identity is regarded as authentic by society?

One of the highlights of this play is the dynamic between Sandra Lynn Oei, a Singaporean entrepreneur who spent a decade of her childhood in the UK, and Singapore-born-and-bred community leader Ashwariya Ramnathan, who is only too aware of the challenges faced by a racial minority in Singapore. Both Charmaine Teo and Ashie Singh, who play the former and latter characters accordingly, are avid performers with a strong theatre background. In an interview, Ashie Singh states, “I think Ash is very value centric. Once she has a mindset on a particular thought, it becomes very difficult for her to sway away from that. So she is a very rigid character in that sense.” Likewise, Charmaine Teo shares, “(Sandra Lynn) felt very alienated while she was in the UK because people, obviously, discriminated against her for looking Chinese and she experienced lots of racism. So she has always believed that she is a Singaporean, because this is where she belongs. That’s why she came back for her tertiary education and work.” 

In a pivotal and extremely heated moment in the play, Ashwariya’s refusal to acknowledge Sandra Lynn’s Singaporean identity pushes the soft-spoken Sandra Lynn into yelling, “I’m not a representation, I’m a f*cking person!” That, perhaps, raises a burning question we leave with our audience: When we regard an entire group of people as a monolith, are we denying them the right to be seen as an individual?

A female-presenting person in a red shirt, shouting angrily at another person wearing a blue shirt. Between them, yet another person attempts to mediate.

Ashie as Ashwariya (left) and Charmaine as Sandra Lynn (right), during a moment of high tension.

At the same time, we contrast the linguistic difficulties that both characters face. While Sandra Lynn struggles with speaking Chinese as she did not experience the bilingual education system in Singapore, Ashwariya is made to feel that her mother tongue of Hindi is not legitimate as the government only recognizes Tamil as one of the four official languages of Singapore. 

In this way, The T.R.U.E. Awards adopts a multilingual approach in playwriting to reflect the diversity of Singaporean identities, and the staging itself legitimizes Hindi as a language by having an entire segment, including the surtitles, to be in Hindi. By alienating the English and Mandarin speaking majority, the play puts Hindi speakers on an equal level as all other languages. 

While the idea sounds novel, this practice was first imagined by none other than Kuo Pao Kun, in the early days of post-independence Singaporean playwrights who sought to find a Singaporean voice. Describing an early attempt at capturing the Singaporean voice, academic Margaret Chan speaks of Kuo Pao Kun’s play Mama Looking For Her Cat: 

Kuo realised that the true Singaporean voice was a babel in which people spoke but did not communicate. In performance, every one of the multilingual cast spoke in their own language; English, Mandarin, Tamil, Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew. The use of different languages on stage without providing any kind of translation for the audience was a bold and untried experiment, it became a mark of Kuo’s future plays. Paradoxically, the alienation that the audience must have felt because they could not understand parts of the dialogue, drew them together [in solidarity] as seekers of a new social and cultural identity.

For a play written in 2024 in response to an English-language play penned in 1964, the considerations ranged from addressing contemporary ideas and issues to recognizing many of Singapore’s cultural and linguistic issues still remain unaddressed, and as much as Singapore is unique for its accommodative approach through the adoption of English as an educational and legal lingua franca and our own mother tongue languages as a second language, this has also resulted in a strange dynamic between the different racial-linguistic groups in Singapore, where untranslatable values and cultural norms therefore are not uniformly shared across the population. As such, The T.R.U.E. Awards is an examination of how race-based policies have shaped identity in Singapore, as much as it explores who gets chosen and celebrated by the government in what can almost be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Which Singapore identity does the government choose and celebrate?

After many rounds of discussions and edits, this was the final research question that The T.R.U.E. Awards seeks to tackle. The final moments of the play hammer home the flaws of meritocracy: Not everyone who wants it will get it, and not everyone who gets it wants it. The ending also reveals that for all the talk of a true Singaporean, the real winners are always the ones who have the money or power to be in charge. 

Yet, it says a lot when out of all the candidates, it is still the neutral, diplomatic and eloquent Chinese man who ultimately takes home the prize in the six-way fight for the TRUE Awards. “When Charmaine and I first conceptualized the character, Josiah was the insidious bad guy. As the weeks went along, we eventually decided that Josiah would be more of a nothing guy who knows how to play politics, but does not have a strong view,” states Joshua Seow, an improv-trained actor who plays political wannabe Josiah George Tan. Joshua adds, “We have roughly three pairs of characters now that are uniquely in conflict with each other, and I hope we can tie it all together to the central idea of Singaporean identity. I’m quite excited to get on stage and block everything, figure out the staging. That’s something I enjoy about creating theatre.”

Male-presenting person carrying a large novelty check with a neutral expression.

Joshua as Josiah George Tan.

In contrast, Kevin Tay, who plays Benji Goh or Beng for short, is a foil to Joshua’s character. As a 27-year-old fresh graduate, Benji is implied to have taken a longer educational route for a Singaporean male, going from the Normal Technical stream to National Service, which would take 9 years, before he can embark on the 4-year journey to obtain a Bachelor’s degree. On the other hand, Josiah easily sailed through Singapore’s education system and became Benji’s superior in the military despite being a year younger than him. Benji’s accent, language patterns, and mannerisms are therefore a deliberate choice that symbolizes his defiance of Josiah and everything he stands for. 

Two male-presenting persons having a confrontation while seated. The one on the left aggressively grasps the other's shoulder.

Kevin as Benji Goh (Beng), during a scene in which Beng confronts Josiah.

The principal playwright and editor for the play, Kevin’s character would come as a shock to those who know him in real life, and that is a testament to his ability to embody a character that is so different from his usual mannerisms. Of his character, Kevin shares, “Benji is an antagonistic character who picks on Josiah the most because he comes off as pretentious. He believes Singaporeans should be how he is.”

This tenuous dynamic between the two characters who already have a relationship as a result of the Singapore system eventually becomes the catalyst for the denouement of the play, and by the end of the 30 minutes, there will be a lot for the audience to think about: What are our criteria for who should be the Singaporean who is chosen and celebrated? Who sets those criteria, and do we blindly accept those criteria as is, or will we start questioning if we can progress toward a more fair and inclusive Singapore?

Alas, in the words of Lim Chor Pee, “the future of Asia is in the hands of young people”, and “their future lays in the sorting out of their values and inner conflicts” (1964). Sixty years on, that has not changed.


References

Chan, Margaret. "Kuo Pao Kun: The Spirit of the Eagle." Contemporary Theatre Review 13.3 (2003): 26-36.
Lim, Chor Pee. “A White Rose At Midnight.” University of Singapore Library (1964).