Theatre director/playwright Wong Lay Chin was a curious little girl when she was growing up in a close-knit community in George Town, Penang.
There was always enough neighbourhood gossip to go around and Wong, a silent listener, used to huddle close to the older women when they talked about a certain couple’s quarrel here or a family dispute there. She was strangely fascinated by these stories of marital blues and familial troubles.
This weekend, Wong, 43, is set to revisit some of those frayed domestic themes in The Storyteller: Because You Are A Woman theatre play, which opens on Aug 16 at Now Theatre, Taman Sungai Besi in Kuala Lumpur.
Because You Are A Woman is the second production under Wong’s The Storyteller series. Her first The Storyteller show, about a broken family, was first staged at Taiwan’s Duo Town International Arts Festival in 2017.
“As a child, I saw all these married couples in the neighbourhood, happy and smiling in front of you. But at night, you could hear them quarrelling, even if their house was at the end of the street. This idea of a married couple’s ‘public life and private life’ really interested me,” shares Wong in a recent interview in KL.
Because You Are A Woman, a monologue, features Penang-born actress Amelia Tan. Here, the concept of marriage is discussed through the personal and brutally honest inter-generational stories of three women.
Because You Are A Woman, which runs for 45-minutes, will be performed in Penang Hokkien with English and Mandarin surtitles. It was first performed at Kaohsiung, Taiwan as part of the Let’s Be Together Arts Festival 2018. It was subsequently staged in George Town in 2018 and Taipei in 2019.
Tan acted in all the stagings. Interestingly, Because You Are A Woman marked the first time both Wong and Tan worked together although they have been friends for nearly 20 years. The upcoming staging at Now Theatre is produced by Wong’s Move Creativ and Tan’s ACX Productions.
“The play is not trying to say that women have to be married to feel complete. That’s not what we are trying to do,” says Wong, who teaches performing arts in a college in Kuala Lumpur.
Wong, who was trained in theatre in Taiwan, also directed shows such as Sunset (2015), Good Ol’ Days (2016) and Pak Tor (2017).
“As a writer and director, I just want to throw the question to the audience on whether it is societal pressure to get married or is it that we – women – frame ourselves to think this way. Almost every woman has to face the question of whether they should be married or not.
“But more than that, the play looks at marriage itself and why women choose to stay in marriages which are unhappy or plagued with abuse,” she adds.
“When we staged it in Taiwan, one audience member actually came up to us and said that this was the story of her own mother. So, it touches everyone,” says Tan, 44, who is also an award-winning lighting designer.
Tan’s recent stage credits include The Ring Of Nibelung (2018) and Thunderstorm (2019).
Tan is relishing the roles she has to play in Because You Are A Woman, which revolves around a grandmother, her daughter and her granddaughter (all at different stages of their lives).
Despite being in an abusive marital relationship, the grandmother still holds true to the institution of marriage and puts on a strong front, masking her hurt and pain. The older woman then impresses on her daughter about the importance of being a good wife. The daughter, in turn, has her own issues with her marital life and finds it difficult to convince her own daughter to get married.
The series of monologues are told across various timelines in a non-linear way, forcing the audience to play detective and piece things together.
Tan says playing three different roles was actually not a big challenge, having played multiple roles in Leow Puay Tin’s Three Children (1999).
It was speaking Penang Hokkien that was the problem.
“Although, Penang Hokkien is my mother tongue, it has been a while since I have used it,” says Tan.
In talking about her characters, Tan says she based the grandmother’s role on her own grandmother, who was a very strong woman.
“But unlike my grandmother, this character is a broken woman. She was physically abused by her husband and she covers this with overconfidence. She feels very small inside. So showing these complexities was an interesting challenge,” reveals Tan.