In a play speckled with such colourful terms as janji Melayu and Cina bangsat, Anomalist Production didn’t so much offend as intrigue with BANGSA: Anak Kecil Main Api last weekend at Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC).
Starring Zulhusni Zamir, Syafiq Kauzi, Amira Saberi and Nabil Zakaria, BANGSA largely revolves around the life of Manan, a racist Malay man who chooses to hold onto history in his fight for Malay solidarity. The play spans three generations, with most of its events taking place after Manan has gained stature as a community leader in his village.
Burdened by a tragedy in his past, Manan goes to great lengths to keep his people together; he openly calls for a boycott of a Chinese grocery store as the village youth leader and punishes his son for going out with a mixed race girl.
Playing foil is Rizal, who has the same cause but chooses to approach matters differently. Instead of keeping focus on the problems with others, Rizal decides to dissect the strengths and weaknesses of his own people.
Despite worry from certain quarters that the play would invoke negative reaction from non-Malay audiences, we’re glad to say that BANGSA is not a racist play. It is however, very racial. From the perspective of a non-Malay and non-Muslim, this writer believed it carried a strong message, but one that is exclusively catered to a specific ethnic group.
BANGSA is largely concerned with the interaction between members of the Malay race, but it frequently brings up the Chinese too. And much like our local political climate at present, Indians are more or less marginalised: there was only a single mention of the race throughout the play.
We stopped feeling uneasy once we took a step back and thought about films that solely champion African Americans such as The Help, 12 Years A Slave and The Butler. BANGSA is just a play created with Malay people in mind — it calls upon members of the race to look upon their shortcomings and reflect on their progression in time.
Whether it was executed well however is a completely different question.
BANGSA boasted a stellar turn from Zulhusni Zamir, a riveting, committed presence on the stage. As a young actor, Zulhusni is one of the most interesting we’ve seen recently; the 25 year old performer is just as convincing as Manan at 33 or 55 years of age. He last gave us chills as the deranged Khalifah in Skrip Untuk Ali, and we foresee very great things ahead of him.
Elsewhere, Nabil Zakaria’s impeccable comic timing and awkward demeanour resulted in some of the best one-liners in the play, while Amira Saberi (always a delight based on what we’ve seen!), Sheda Shamsuddin and Sara Zee together pulled off multiple characters and managed to bring some cheer into the play despite its heavy theme.
Unfortunately, we felt that Syafiq Kauzi’s portrayal of Rizal could have been a little more truthful. He often displayed a pained expression and vocal affectation which came across as forced, and the play’s climax ended up being a somewhat dull moment due to his delivery of a highly important speech.
Set design is kept minimal, with just three versatile chair-shaped blocks making up most of the set. It works for the most part, although we had the impression that some of the props and set pieces were not brought in and out of scenes as programmed, leading to many improvised comedic moments. It’s not the prettiest of plays in terms of visuals, but Anomalist has got the job done, barely.
BANGSA‘s lighting and sound meanwhile could definitely use an upgrade.
Some light cues were quite unnecessary. Case in point, when the character of Haidar leaves home, he exits through an imaginary door. As soon as he steps on the other side of this door, there’s a window of light over him. We thought this was indicative of a scene about to happen, but no, he simply exits and the light fades.
Sound-wise, the play tended towards melodrama. Sound effects and music worked during pivotal action-laden moments, but not during quieter, more confessional segments.
We were big fans of the writing and pleasantly surprised given that this is writer/director Khairi Anwar‘s debut effort for Anomalist Production. He put in effort to entertain audiences in addition to provoking thought, and as a result we have simple, character-driven jokes which work perfectly well. We consider this a blessing; audience members were grasping for anything to laugh at during BANGSA‘s darker moments.
There were some nice touches in term of direction too: the 13 May 1969 riots was depicted with the cast running around the stage emulating slashing their own necks while bathed in red light.
BANGSA marks Anomalist Production’s biggest production to date, and it’s their first one staged in a professional performing arts venue. Prior to this, they’ve kept themselves within university grounds, choosing to stage Skrip Untuk Ali in Universiti Malaya earlier this year, while Saksi Terakhir took place in Universiti Teknologi Mara.
Given the costs of acquiring a proper venue in Kuala Lumpur, it’s courageous of Anomalist to hedge their bets on managing director Khairi Anwar’s untested, debut script. But it seems to have paid off; for a performance with no big names or heavy publicity they’ve managed to score full houses during their first two night showings.
Also in attendance on Saturday night were Tuan ‘Tapai’ Faisal, Qahar Aqilah, Marina Tan, Belinda Hon and Revolution Stage‘s Khairunazwan Rodzy. Impressive, given that Anomalist Production has barely been around and none of these guys are theatre majors.