Back in 2008, I kicked off a routine theatre review with the following words: “Guess what, guys? Old is the new gay!”
In that write up, I argued that Singaporean theatremakers were finally getting over their obsession with the LGBT community, and that they’d begun redirecting their attentions to another oppressed minority: senior citizens. I listed a string of recent plays, focused on the perspectives of the elderly, which might indicate a new direction in local drama.
Alas, I was wrong. Old folks haven’t become a hot new theatrical trend. They’re not absent from the scene—Grandmother Tongue was in fact the first play to sell out at the Singapore Theatre Festival. Yet when it comes to new plays, most theatremakers just don’t find seniors to be as sexy other hot-button topics, such as politics and gay rights.
But hold on a second, says playwright Helmi Yusof. What if we stopped thinking about the elderly and LGBTs as separate issues? What if we could show that the same forces in Singaporean society are marginalising them both?
This is what drove him to write My Mother Buys Condoms, which premiered last Thursday in a production directed by Ivan Heng. It’s a comedy centred on Maggie (Lok Meng Chue), a lovable 63 year-old retired literature teacher who causes a scandal when she decides to begin dating.
Despite the racy title, there’s an air of homegrown wholesomeness to the play: an HDB setting (set designer Wong Chee Wai’s created incredibly realistic interiors), a multiracial cast of characters, plenty of Singlish, and hilarious little moments of slapstick that involve everyone chasing one another around the living room while the audience collapses into chuckles. Don’t be fooled, though: all these Under One Roof-style aesthetics are meant to lull us into a sense of comfort before we’re challenged over our taboos.
You see, Maggie’s lover isn’t a dapper golf-playing widower that she met at a book club. He’s an illiterate Malaysian air-conditioner repairman named Raju (Remesh Panicker). When her family and friends object to their liaison, Maggie dares to accuse them of racism and xenophobia. “Does it make a difference that he’s Indian?” she says. “Does it make a difference that he’s a foreigner?”
Furthermore, the play makes her sexuality explicit. Not only does she shop for contraceptives: she also pours out her heart to her friend Madam Nora (Elnie S. Mashari), describing her newfound capacity to orgasm, and Raju’s superior performance compared to her ex-husband. And though no-one disrobes on stage, there’s a tender kiss between the lovers—a scene that made teens and twenty-somethings in the audience cringe with discomfort. (Young people may think they’re libertines, but they’re often pretty prudish in their own way.)
Perhaps most significantly, the play draws a parallel between Maggie and her lesbian daughter Gwen (Seong Hui Xuan). Both are expected to keep their sexualities hidden, and both face the most ostracism from Maggie’s spoilt son, Wilfred (Joshua Lim). They’re bossed around, threatened and insulted—though both are ultimately able to walk away proudly from his bullying.
In effect, My Mother Buys Condoms is a portrait of our country’s culture wars: a battle for two competing visions of the nation. Wilfred and Nora stand for a closed, conservative society, ruled by a Confucian-Protestant-Islamic code of propriety.
Maggie and Gwen, on the other hand, point the way forward for a more liberal Singapore—one in which citizens may deviate from traditionally prescribed roles, so as to achieve their own definitions of happiness, prosperity and progress.
This individualism isn’t necessarily anti-family. After all, it’s Wilfred—a 34 year-old man-child, not a patriarch—who causes the most damage to the family by demanding that it conform to a standard that would make its members miserable. It’s also made clear that he has the potential to heal the rifts he’s created, if he can only bring himself to accept his loved ones for who they are; if he’s just willing to grow up.
One of my favourite exchanges in the show takes place as Maggie’s confessing her fears to Raju. She’s afraid of what others might say about them, afraid of the future. He dispels her worries with a zinger of a line: “I’m 57. You’re 63. We’re already in the future.”
And as we approach the nation’s 51st birthday, I can’t help but feel the same thing about this land. We’ve got a first-world economy, an educated population, and a skyline that’s the envy of the rest of the globe. Yet we’re still clinging on to a fictitious matrix of “Asian values” that stops us from making truly liberal reforms, laws that could improve rights and freedoms for all of us, regardless of age and race and gender and sexual orientation.
There are so many of us who’re being held back by misplaced conservatism. Instead of concentrating on our differences, there must be some way we can rally together in solidarity, young and old, gay and straight and bi and pan and other, and ask the powers that be uncomfortable questions:
Why can’t we move forward?
What are we still waiting for?
My Mother Buys Condoms runs from Thursday 14 July to Sunday 24 July at the Singapore Airlines Theatre, LASALLE College of the Arts. Bookings may be made via Sistic: http://www.sistic.com.sg/events/stf2016f
It is part of W!ld Rice’s Singapore Theatre Festival. Check out the other events in the Festival here: http://singaporetheatrefestival.com/