I attended Lit Up 2014 over the weekend, in what was my first exposure to live poetry by the Party Action People spoken word troupe. I wanted to simply write on a local work, but was convinced by a fellow classmate to give the Singaporean literature scene a try.
So walking up to the event, I was greeted by loud reggae music which reverberated throughout the courtyard of the Aliwal Arts Centre, as dreadlocked vendors slackly walked about hawking goods at the flea market amidst a throng of local and Caucasian faces. Strangely enough, other than a painting of Chinatown, most of the goods on display were foreign-looking oddities or reggae/funk vinyls. This Jamaican market vibe left me feeling mildly culturally displaced in what I had presumed to be a celebration and partaking of my own national literature and culture.
Anyhow, my ticket was collected before I was ushered into the performance hall. I wondered then, if the pitch-black darkness was intentional, as some sort of blank canvas or tabula rasa concept? But such trivial concerns gave way to the pressing need for a seat, as I groped through the perilous dark until I found a place among others, in a nebulous room of hushed voices which seemed then, to be filling with a tangible energy both from the audience and the troupe themselves.
Now on the production itself, the format of the live poetry performance was interesting, given that the different spoken word pieces were conceptualised and arranged as a TV programme schedule. This arrangement allowed for a somewhat voyeuristic experience, and it helps to note that the official brochure invites the viewer to “channel surf through mediated fantasies”. This fixation on watching TV and being watched by it was particular played up in Gideon Goh’s hilarious parody of North Korean propaganda in “Pyongyang Passions”, where his self-censoring and self-policing were brought to bear on perhaps, a tongue-in-cheek jab at some of our own government’s antics with the media.
Indeed, much of the poetry was highly politicised, with mockery of the paternalistic Singapore Government a mainstay theme throughout the hour-long production of Everybody Hertz. A number of pieces were particularly memorable in this light, notably the North Korean parody as mentioned, as well as Marylyn Tan’s “All News is Good News” piece. Here she fired off devilishly clever lines with all the forced panache of a Channel NewsAsia anchor, in what was a hysterical take on the state of local news in Singapore – highly-censored, diluted and only ever about the good and “actual” stuff.
Those that shifted away from political themes tended to be downright bizarre like the monologue of “Penis-Man”, a washed-up hero struggling to keep up appearances, or “Boo-geoisie”, three ghosts in a variety show vying for the right to haunt the living. As a Singaporean, though I found a satisfaction in appreciating the local flavours and references of such pieces, against the other more politicised “programmes” which seemed to have more of an objective, the laughter produced by the bizarre poems felt a tad arbitrary at times albeit genuine and sincere.
Nonetheless, I also enjoyed the troupe’s line-up simply in that it was genuinely more multi-racial than any edition of our national parades. This year, the Party Action People featured Marc Nair, Charlene Shepherdson, Jennifer Anne Champion, Gideon Goh, Allee Koh, Shivram Gopinath and Marylyn Tan – a delightful blend of foreign and local talent. And while the myriad accents were pleasing to the ear, the different races and ethnicities allowed for a small space to explore racial anxieties for recognition. In this light, Gopinath’s part in the “Jeopardy” piece was particularly relevant and mirthful as his Gopal Kannan character persistently wrestled with the host (Marylyn Tan) for a proper recognition of his name and presence in the game show. Though the audience had its sides split with blithe laughter by Gopinath, I thought it was an ironically poignant reminder of the struggle and Government which many minorities must contend with on a daily basis, in a State that tends to water down race and ethnicity.
Finally, my personal favourite was the last piece wherein each member of the troupe sang a different national day song, on top of each other, which ultimately produced a final sound so raucous and discordant it would have been a shoo-in number for the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The audience thoroughly enjoyed this bit, as did I, no doubt reminded of the forced image of unity we are made to suffer annually through the parades. Yet when the lights came back on, I found myself leaving, feeling that all the laughter I had given was genuine but peculiarly empty in some ways. What I mean to say is, seeing that the Party Action People have a keen interest in asking political questions about the People’s Action Party – are they sufficiently convicted that literature can change humanity and the system they mock, for the better? Is it true change they are striving for? One must ask these questions because we chortle at poetry about ourselves and the Singapore government, but I still don’t believe that parody for parody’s sake or poetry for its own sake is ardent enough to elicit change from this system and space we find ourselves in today.