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story | Justin Ong, Managing Editor
photo | Rachel Juay
I watched Private Parts, a play by (aside), with no expectations and little knowledge of transgender issues. Directed by Sean Cham ’19 and adapted from the original play written by Michael Chiang in 1992, I was, firstly, interested to see how a modern theater group would present a production written 25 years ago, and secondly, whether there is potential for this play to be timeless. Far from just displaying the everyday struggles of the transgender characters, this play acts as a time capsule that lets us decide for ourselves how much has progressed since the Singapore of 1992.
It has become common for theater productions to opt for abstract presentations and subtle clues, choosing to leave the audience to gather what they will, instead of presenting everything on a platter. Private Parts is not one of those plays. Unapologetic in its portrayal of transgender issues in Singapore, the issue of transgender identity is unmistakably put under the spotlight.
The play begins with a studio filming “Today in Singapore”, a talk show featuring the opening of Bugis World, a fictional theme park that showcases drag queens and flamboyantly-dressed trans women for entertainment. Two personalities immediately clash: the glamorously dressed Diana, who is a drag queen, and the conservative Mrs Betsy Tan, a middle-aged mother of three. Both argue viciously on stage over the legitimization of adult entertainment by the Singapore Tourism Board. State exploitation of the pink dollar becomes at once reminiscent— almost eerily so—of reality, as does the accompanying pushback by conservative society. Cyril Collins, a representative of the Singapore Tourism Board, finds himself literally caught between two characters from opposing factions of Singapore’s society.
The fact that most of this heated discourse happens in the television studio is intriguing, and takes us aback because we imagine a public audience that is not used to such uncensored discussion of transgender identity and issues. Sam, the director of “Today in Singapore”, is often enraged at the behaviour of the guests, desperate to keep them in check, and worried about the reputation of her talk show as a credible production. Warren, the protagonist and the host of the show, is criticised off-stage by Sam, who implores him to “act like a man”, for he is unable to control the guests who get engrossed in their own arguments while on live broadcast. It is perhaps fitting that Warren is forced to take an emergency trip to Falcon Crest Medical Centre for surgery following an accident that severely injures his private parts, in an attempt to restore his manhood. While there, he befriends three transgender patients (Mirabella, Edward and Lavinia) who are waiting to undergo gender-affirming surgery (previously known as sex reassignment surgery). Warren rudely asks Mirabella, “Are you one of them?”, immediately othering himself from the pre-operation transgender patients, not realizing that Falcon Crest Medical Centre is known for its niche in gender-affirming surgery.
The recurring theme of “us versus them” is constantly situated alongside “conservative versus liberal”, “public versus private”, and “cisgender versus transgender”. These comparisons are explicitly fleshed out through the play, from Betsy’s outrage at the existence of Bugis World, to Rosalind’s muddling up of the transgender characters (which a sheepish Warren has to rectify at a wedding). On one level we see an outright resistance towards the emergence of a transgender community, but as Rosalind shows, the passive ignorance of the general public is as much of an obstacle. The reminder of why they are “different” constantly bombards the characters, and by extension, the audience as well.
What is truly interesting are the conflicts and disagreements between the transgender characters . Mirabella constantly and humorously criticises Nurse Vernon for his idiosyncrasies, while Lavinia cares more about her appearance the moment Edward suggests that Warren might be an undercover reporter. Such plurality within the transgender characters is the real merit of the show, not just giving the audience a glimpse into their lives, but also transcending the easy portrayal of one-dimensional, stereotypical characters for the sake of comedy. More than just criticising the othering of transgender people, the play actively seeks to bridge crucial gaps in understanding, showing us that beneath the labels of gender, we aren’t that different after all.
At first, the play pushes forth a harsh dichotomy of male and female, and emphasises the security of identifying as either one of the sexes. The transgender characters perceive themselves to be in an uncomfortable in-between state, and are seen waiting at Falcon Crest, anxious yet eager to finally be “whole”. However, the play’s shining moment is when Mirabella, though “transformed” into a female with an “operational female anatomy”, still shows that she is uncontented. This could highlight the challenges of being a woman, or it could be just her longing for Warren. But perhaps these possibilities are too simplistic. To me this is a lingering question that the play asks: whether the struggles of a trans person truly ends with surgery and the reassignment of their gender. These questions are as pertinent today as when the play was first written.
Alarming from the start is the loudness of the play, the explicitness of the themes, the struggle that is often said rather than shown. Sometimes the portrayal of Mirabella was overly sexualised, at many times the contrast between transgender and conservative characters seemed unforgivingly extreme.
Still, I’ve come to realise that to have seen these themes as over-explicit is part of the triumph. For playwright Chiang, there must have been the notion that the audience should not be coddled with subtleties and mere suggestions, but shown face-up the raw struggles that transgender people face. If anything, Chiang’s aim was to drive home the message that “we are all alike underneath the superficial differences”, an urgent point that he did not want the audience to miss. As I heard Mirabella point at her chest to tell Warren that “what matters is what you feel”, part of me cringed. But I realised later that I only cringed because, as an audience member in 2017, part of me already knew these things.
That is not to say there is no room for further progress. The play’s effectiveness shines with a set that is both performance stage and television studio, inviting the audience into the conversation and blurring the line between fiction and reality. It poses the question: how much has really changed since this play was first performed? In an ideal world, this play would lose much of its relevance through time, with the themes it raises gradually becoming non-issues. However, the play’s continued relevance urges us not to take progress (if any has been made) for granted. (aside)’s adaptation of Private Parts serves to mark our heights against the wall, as a stark reminder of how much more we still need to progress.
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