Datuk Faridah Merican was barely 20 years old when she started working at the national radio station in the late 1950s.
She didn’t know it back then, but this would become one of the loves of her life. There was just something about radio broadcasting and the power of the voice that fascinated her. But it wasn’t easy being a part-timer at Radio Malaya in Penang.
Opportunities did not come knocking on her door regularly. But whatever that she could lay her hands on, she grabbed hold of it.
She began as an announcer, what we call a radio deejay now, and she went on to read the news. Radio plays and reading short stories followed suit. All in all, these were experiences that she would cherish for the rest of her life. That was nearly six decades ago.
But Faridah, theatre doyenne and the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre’s (KLPac) co-founder, remembers her formative years in Radio Malaya with sweet nostalgia.
“I would start at six in the morning since I was the announcer and sometimes, only end at midnight. That’s how long radio transmission was back then. This was before radio became 24 hours,” the recalls Faridah, 79, in a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.
“There’s just something about radio, the fact that you can use your voice to reach out to thousands of people. I do miss it very, very much.”
Fortunately, for the First Lady of Malaysian theatre, who also went on to read the news on television, an opportunity has come along to reunite with this old passion of hers. Transitions is a new play written by stage actor Marina Tan and features Faridah as the lead character.
Transitions, co-directed by Omar Ali and Joe Hasham, opens at Pentas 2, KLPac on May 24. It also features Na’a Murad, 54, and Shamaine Othman, 35. The play is supported by Yayasan Sime Darby and Yayasan Hasanah.
It tells the story of Kathy Khan (Faridah), the founder of community radio station SeniSound Heritage Radio Station, which operates from a shophouse in one of the older suburbs of KL. Kathy suddenly suffers a massive stroke after celebrating the station’s 10th anniversary.
“I didn’t have Faridah from the start but as the writing process went on, I knew this was a role for Faridah,” says Tan, 44, referring to the initial meeting she had with the directors.
Tan, whose stage writing repertoire includes What Am I, A Bloody Banyan Tree? (2016) and Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa – A Swashbuckling Epic Adventure! (2009), says she was inspired by American playwright Arthur Kopit’s 1978 play called Wings, which also revolves around a female protagonist who suffers a massive stroke.
“Wings was inspired by Kopit’s own experience with his father’s stroke. The writing process helped him understand what his father was going through.
“I didn’t have a similar experience as Kopit’s but I have been thinking about the patient-caregiver experience and how people don’t really know what that’s like,” says Tan, who was also inspired by Malaya-era music books such as Saidah Rastam’s Rosalie And Other Love Songs and Just For The Love Of It by Paul Augustin and James Lochhead.
This play, as Tan reveals, includes how music and radio back then shaped the nation.
Transitions, which runs for 90 minutes, has its lighthearted moments but it is also informed by real life experiences.
“I have never suffered a stroke before but I have seen the elders in my family getting very sick and therefore had to depend on caregivers.
“My eldest sister had to look after my parents who were sick for many years. She was like God’s gift to them. She sacrificed so much of her life. Later when she was bedridden, her husband and daughter took care of her,” recalls Faridah.
“Even when Joe (Hasham, Faridah’s husband) suffered a mild stroke, I was not the kind of caregiver I probably should have been.
“For me, this is a culmination of memories and experiences that I would certainly want to use for the role of Kathy because I can’t imagine what it would be like to suffer a stroke,” she adds.
For her lead role, Faridah is also working with the National Stroke Association Of Malaysia (Nasam), visiting the Nasam centres in the Klang Valley to observe and learn the mannerisms of stroke patients in rehabilitation.
In Transitions, Faridah’s character Kathy has to deal with her health situation. She also has to figure out if she can still run a radio station. Her relationships with her daughter Nan (Shamaine) and son-in-law Roy (Na’a) will also be examined on stage.
“Kathy is a veteran of radio and then she suffers a stroke and with stroke, you have difficulty speaking,” says Omar, 35, who directed works like Kandang (2017) and Dato’ Seri (2016).
“Can you imagine what that would mean to someone who had spent her whole life talking? What do you do when you lose that something which has defined you?” he adds.
Transitions, as poignant as the script sounds, will also explore the breakdown of communication between the patient and the people around them.
And this is something that Tan wanted to focus on as a playwright, of how the stress of caregiving “compresses people”.
“You may have issues that are unresolved but are not immediately urgent. You survive daily life and feel happy enough, but when a serious illness happens, suddenly all these issues come to the forefront and you start lashing out at each other. “
“You see, stroke, as with any chronic illness, is a life changing thing. The family’s lifestyle got to change and many families fall apart,” Tan points out.
Omar couldn’t agree more. He recounts the time when his late father Tan Sri Muhammad Ali Hashim succumbed to cancer a few years ago, the man with whom he co-wrote Dato Seri (a Malay version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth) and Kandang (a Malay version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm).
“I saw what it did to my family. This tension that suddenly came up and everyone was trying to hold it together. It was the ugliest but the most beautiful and the most terrible and the most wonderful thing that I have ever seen.
“It’s about very stressful situations and how relationships are put to the test … that’s what this play comes down to,” says Omar.
Transitions plays at Pentas 2, KLPac, Sentul Park, Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah in KL from May 23-26. Showtimes: May 23-25 (8.30pm) & May 26 (3pm) Tickets: RM60 & RM50 (concession). More info: www.klpac.org. A documentary ‘Against The Wind’ by Wayne Peng about stroke survivors stories will also be screened before the theatre show at the KLPac lobby.