By Ng Yi-Sheng
Is Grind (24 March-2 April 2016) a play for gay people or for straight people?
That’s the question that kept buzzing in my brain while I was watching this new work by Toy Factory Theatre Productions last Saturday. Clearly, it’s been marketed to gay people: all its publicity features young muscular Chinese men under dramatic lighting and without shirts. Accordingly, the audience that turned up was largely dominated by gay men.
However, its exploration of gay issues so blindingly basic that I’d venture to say it has value primarily for straight people, who haven’t had to think about these matters as much. (Case in point: Askhita Nanda from the Straits Times liked it, and she’s as hetero as they come. Read her review here)
Mind you, the presentation’s pretty cool. Instead of being seated in front of the performers, we stand throughout the show, while they tower above us on pedestals, as if they’re go-go boys and we’re in a club. Stockings filled with weights hang from the ceiling, dangling like phallic mobiles, while assorted pieces of rubbish lie on the floor.
The play itself, written by Goh Boon Teck and Shar Pi’ee, focuses on four Chinese Singaporean gay men: the activist Long (Mitchell Fang), the happily monogamous Pang (Chong Woon Yong), the repressed Christian guy Gan (Stanley Seah) and the body-conscious gym addict Tian (Juni Goh). Their stories aren’t interconnected: in fact, they deliver most of them monologue-style, performing their scenes turn by turn.
Each character is essentially a gay cliché. And that’s not necessarily a terrible thing—one can build absorbing stories out of clichés, after all. Gan’s tale is quite compelling: not only can we sympathise with his constant psychic pain, he also delivers graphic descriptions of how he gets temporary relief from his religious guilt through anonymous sex in bathhouses.
The other tales are a good deal less riveting. Long’s is the least developed: he’s just a discontented guy who’s trying to start PinkDot. Pang’s life is perfect in every way, except for the fact that his sister won’t accept his relationship. Tian’s an Instagram addict who desperately counts his likes and followers because he’s got body image issues.
The fact is, none of the characters is sufficiently complex or unusual enough to rise above generic labels. Furthermore, because the play’s divided between the four of them, there’s no single focus except for the rather obvious statement that homophobia is bad.
But boy oh boy: the writers sure are determined to drive that last point home. The characters are just so goddamned earnest in their litanies of how oppressed they are—particularly Gan, who describes his agony using flowery metaphors of “cherry-wood doors of righteousness” and whatnot.
This leads to the show’s greatest sin: it’s hardly ever light. It’s almost wholly composed of heavy emotions—barely any of the wit and sarcasm and self-aware humour that’s part of gay men’s shared heritage.
We don’t even get much sex. The audience is told before entering the theatre, that we’ll see the male form naked in all its glory—yet there’s rather little exposure of handsome actors’ bodies, and the nude scene turns out to be profoundly disturbing.
So really, there’s rather little for gay folks to learn about or really enjoy in this play. Straight folks might pick something up, but I’d dare say the kind of heterosexual who pays $42 to watch a gay-themed play could’ve been exposed to deeper stuff.
There are loads of topics that should be discussed more in the queer community. Other Singaporean plays have plunged into this fertile territory: Ovidia Yu’s Hitting (on) Women raised the issue of lesbian domestic violence, while Kenneth Chia and Kimberley Arriola’s Let’s Get Back Together documented coming out stories from people of different races from across the LGBT spectrum.
Grind, however, simplifies the gay experience to the point of banality. It even makes Pink Dot out to be the absolute salvation of all gay men—never mind that there are loads of debates within the community over whether it’s too sanitised, or too non-confrontational, to be of any real use in generating progress.
To be fair, there are a few moments that reveal that the show was more complex in its earlier drafts. There’s a very odd scene where a makcik demonstrates how to make “straight” rainbow kueh lapis (a thickly veiled reference to the Wear White campaign, I’ve been told). Plus, there’s a sequence where the actors dance topless, faces masked, while delivering a brief history of Singapore’s gay nightlife and politics. A show made out of more chaotic images like that would’ve been harder to pin down, but also a lot more fun.
It’d be great if I could force a crowd of powerful and/or homophobic straight people to watch Grind—politicians, civil servants, religious leaders, bosses, teachers and families who’ve rejected their LGBT relatives. The characters’ stories aren’t inaccurate: many queer people in Singapore have suffered or continue to suffer such anguish because of intolerance.
But if you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, or you’re a close friend of someone who is, then I’d say you can give this a miss. These are tales you’ll have heard before, after all. If want to watch theatre that expands your consciousness, this isn’t it.
Location: Drama Centre Black Box, 100 Victoria Street, National Library building, Level 5
Date: Till April 2, various timings
Tickets: $42 from www.toyfactory.com.sg/tickets
Info: Restricted to audiences 18 years and above