Zooming in on much-needed conversations about racism

There is something uniquely frustrating about a glitchy Zoom call.

Cross-continental production Who's There? parlays that frustration into a febrile dialogue about race, where you are never sure if the glitches are due to technical malfunction or a broader metaphor about the difficulty of connection between opposing points of view.

The production not only works around but also embraces the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic.

Co-directed by Alvin Tan, founder of Singapore theatre company The Necessary Stage, and New York-based Sim Yan Ying for New Ohio Theatre's Ice Factory Festival, it features a cast and crew working across time zones - some up late in Singapore or Malaysia, others just starting the day in the United States.

It is relentlessly topical, covering issues from the Black Lives Matter protests in America to the furore over Ms Raeesah Khan, the newly elected Workers' Party Member of Parliament for Sengkang GRC, who was investigated by the police for her past social media posts about race during the campaign leading up to the General Election on July 10.

The cast for Who's There? plays a loosely connected set of characters. Iyla (Camille Thomas), a black American influencer, is disturbed by a Malaysian student musical which makes use of blackface and confronts the school's assistant director Amir (Ghafir Akbar), who maintains the blackface is part of tradition even if he disagrees with it privately.

Iyla's Singaporean friend Sharmila (Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai) gets into an Instagram feud with former schoolmate Yue Ting (Sim), a US-based activist vocal about Black Lives Matter.

Sharmila calls her out for being "woke" abroad, but silent about racism back in Singapore.

Who's There? throws itself into its medium with metatheatrical verve. Scenes are bracketed by polls for the audience: Can social media call-outs effect real change? Do racists deserve empathy?

Parallel conversations run onscreen and in the chat sidebar. Ghafir pointedly mutes himself during a heated debate where accusations of privilege are thrown around.

"I saw that, Performer 2," snipes Sim in the chat. "We don't need that passive-aggressiveness."

The ensemble cast from Who’s There?: (Clockwise from top left) Neil Redfield, Sim Yan Ying, Camille Thomas, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, Ghafir Akbar and Sean Devare. PHOTO: THE TRANSIT ENSEMBLE



    The Transit Ensemble

    Zoom/Last Thursday

At 100 minutes, the piece drags somewhat, especially in scenes where the performers play with filters or dance in a virtual club setting.

Dorai, as she often does in ensembles of uneven quality, holds the piece together. Her character, Sharmila, has some of the most poignant moments in the play, such as when she describes her experiences of racism as an Indian woman in Singapore or plays recordings of conversations with migrant workers.

Who's There? is rough around the edges and resolves few of the many questions it throws up, but it opens a space for much-needed conversations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2020, with the headline 'Zooming in on much-needed conversations about racism'. Print Edition | Subscribe