‘Zoom Parah’: acclaimed Malaysian play is staged virtually

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The Instant Cafe Theater (ICT) brings back one of its most influential plays, Singaporean writer / playwright Alfian Sa’at’s Parah, for a virtual restoration.

Directed by ICT co-founder Jo Kukathas, the play, now renamed Zoom Parah, will be broadcast live via the new digital theater platform Cloud Theaters on July 25 (8 p.m.) and July 26 (3 p.m.).

This is a paid event, on a pay as you please basis, with RM5 as the starting point. There will be a post-show discussion on both days with the playwright, director, producer and cast.

The nearly two-hour play, which will be presented in Bahasa Malay without subtitles, will feature the original cast of Parah, namely Farah Rani, 32, Gregory Sze, 29, Iedil Dzuhrie Alaudin, 36, and Branavan Aruljothi, 32.

Parah was first staged at the Drama Center Theater in Singapore in 2011 before its KL debut the same year at the Annex Gallery, Central Market.

The play was replayed five more times, including two staged in Brisbane, Australia in 2013, and finally at the Damansara Performing Arts Center the same year.

“Nine years since our first staging Parah, issues of race and privilege are even more hotly debated in Malaysia. The death of George Floyd and the global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement have led many young Malaysians to question the painful racial politics they have inherited, ”says Kukathas, 57.

“Seeing those old wounds resurface so deeply and so quickly is sobering,” she adds.

Alfian wrote Parah in 2011, while doing a residency with ICT, in response to a controversy besieging the country at the time.

The controversy focused on the novel Interlok by Abdullah Hussain who told the interwoven story of a Malay, Chinese and Indian family in the years leading up to independence.

The gang is back: (top to bottom) Sze, Farah, Branavan and Iedil reprise their roles in a virtual production of ‘Parah’. Photo: Instant café-theater

Interlok was reintroduced into the Malaysian school curriculum and made headlines when a Hindu rights group opposed it on the grounds that the portrayal of Indians was humiliating and insulting.

Alfian, whose other writing credits include Malaysian tiger (2018), Hotel (2015) and Nadira (2009), was struck by race struggles in Malaysia.

As a writer, he could not condone the censorship of books, but he was also aware of the wounds caused by these books and words. Parah was then written to examine how racial politics can divide even the strongest friendships.

“In 2020, with Covid-19 leading to a worldwide increase in racist and xenophobic sentiments, we felt it was important to re-stage the play. It was time to re-question our continuing struggle with race relations.

“The language used to intimidate those with different histories has become uglier. Online bullying even led to an Indian girl taking her own life, ”Kukathas explains.

Parah revolves around school friends Melur (Farah), Kahoe (Sze), Mahesh (Branavan) and Hafiz (Iedil).

As best friends, these Form 5 students always hang out in Melur’s house, hanging out, making monkeys, and sometimes studying.

However, their lives are turned upside down when Mahesh sides with the Indian boys in his class by refusing to study their literature textbook, Interlok, on the grounds that he is racist.

Mahesh tries to explain his position to his friends, but it divides them even more. Suddenly everything is now seen through a racial lens.

And without the proper vocabulary to question the wounds of the story, their friendship is threatened.

“In 2020, with Covid-19 leading to a worldwide increase in racist and xenophobic feelings, we felt it was important to re-stage the play.  It was time to question again our ongoing struggle with race relations, ”says Jo Kukathas.  Photo: Filepic “In 2020, with Covid-19 leading to a worldwide increase in racist and xenophobic feelings, we felt it was important to re-stage the play. It was time to question again our ongoing struggle with race relations, ”says Jo Kukathas. Photo: Filepic

Kukathas and his cast agree that revisiting this script after the last staging was a bittersweet experience.

While they are thrilled to be playing these characters again, the cast are troubled by the relevance Parah is in 2020.

“With everything that is going on in the country and in the world, the distance between ‘us’ and ‘the other’ seems to be growing. Parah are felt more deeply in the present, whenever that present is, ”shares Farah, whose stage credits include Golden rain and hailstones (2019) and Nadira (2012).

Sze, a school teacher at the moment, sees how necessary this piece is to keep the conversation about the “race” open.

“The thought that my students are going through something similar and being exposed to issues like these is depressing to say the least,” he says.

Kukathas hopes that with the greater reach of a show online, more Malaysians will participate in the race relations discourse and have honest conversations with family and friends.

“After your computers are off, we hope you will discuss and debate what happened to these four young friends. What could have been done differently? What are you hoping for? We hope that everyone watching us will ask the tough questions that need to be answered, ”Kukathas said.

“The story, these characters and the parts of the play that put the race at the helm; all serve as reminders that until we can see beyond our own prejudices, we will never go anywhere but the other way around, ”Branavan concludes.

‘Parah’ will air on Cloud Theaters (www.cloudtheatres.com). Show dates: July 25 (8 p.m.) and July 26 (3 p.m.). Ticket prices: RM5, RM10, RM30, RM50 and RM100.

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