Mama White Snake - Yuan Fen, Abhinaya and Tears of Joy

“Yuan Fen” (fateful coincidence) is a word that lingers from last night. Is that what brings actors and their audience into a performance space to experience together that special moment in time? 

Walking into the Drama Centre Theatre, I paused for a moment to take stock of the audience present. I’d say 95% Chinese? Perhaps an exaggeration but it seemed like that to me. I suddenly wondered if Wild Rice’s Mama White Snake was going to be in Chinese. But when the character Meng (played by Andrew Marko) walked onto stage and started speaking and asking some individual audience members where they had come from, I realised not. Phew!

“Singapore, Bishan, Eunos” … they responded. And in those first five minutes you knew that this was going to be a recalibration of the classic Chinese folk tale to resonate with the present time and setting. And just in case we ever forgot, Mama White would make sure to keep reminding us with her frequent misintonations of Chinese words :) This came across as an excellent device for inclusivity! 

It was a full house and mind you, Mama White Snake is not a one night affair. The musical, scripted by Alfian Sa'at, directed by Pam Oei and with music by Elaine Chan, opened on November 24th and runs until December 16th. It was evident to me that the audience was waiting in excited anticipation for the curtains to open – to receive and to participate with zest. I was filled with curiosity about how it would all unfold. How would I, a virgin Wild Rice audience member, respond to the work? Don’t forget ~ we do live in parallel universes here in Singapore. The ethnic composition of the audience emphasised that in a way. It is not too different at an Indian show. Also, I have had a terrible fear of snakes since childhood. It’s been so extreme that I cannot even see photos of them. Only in the last few years, have I been able to say the word SNAKE as opposed Sna … Cob… Py … and so on. And in the Chinese sense, I am an Sna :(

From the word GO and for the full two and a half hours thereafter, Mama White Snake was nothing short of absorbing. There was ONE section, a group movement sequence, that seemed to drag just a little in relation to the rest of the show. But just as I thought ‘Hmmm’ … they moved on :)

Such an enchanting intergenerational cast and absolutely wonderful to watch Glen Goei as Madam White and Ivan Heng as Auntie Green. It was also heartening to see that the cross-dressing went both ways with Siti Khalijah’s superb portrayal of Fahai, the martial arts sifu. The personalities of Fahai and his wife and poison expert Madam Ngiao (played by Zelda Tatiana Ng) seemed to decentre stereotypical perceptions of heteronormativity. And then you have the young Meng and Mimi (Cheryl Tan – what a voice!) trying to make sense of it all as they chart out their own lives. Because there is the ‘right’ thing to do and we need to aspire for that higher road to reach Emei Mountain right?

Oh the  congruity and solidarity between Madam White and Auntie Green ~ Ssssisters do get along, you know, and how! And how they humorously yet gracefully coax and cajole us into letting go to celebrate difference, embrace inclusivity and to focus on LOVE above everything else.  So many lessons to draw from the tale … I could watch it again and again because I suspect that each time I would see and receive something new.

The script, song lyrics, music, costumes, sets, lighting and multimedia came together beautifully. The artists had obviously practised for months, even receiving training in the Chinese martial art form  ~ wushu. Ivan and Glen performed the wushu segments like total pros to a very appreciative audience. And such a touch of humour plus brilliance to have Ivan suddenly appear in that green and gold tracksuit!!

Playwright Alfian Sa’at sees the work as “a collision between two things … which then splinter off into multiplicities, revealing shimmering, unexamined facets of each culture.” I want to say that for me, Mama White and Auntie Green were captivating in their long and flowing white and green outfits and I was mesmerised by their acting, no … their abhinaya!  As a bharatanatyam dancer who has always felt partial to the expressive aspect of my form , to me this evening was also a celebration of ABHINAYA at its quintessential best. All the aspects of abhinaya came together with such perfection – angika (body, eyes, etc), vachika (speech and song), aharya (costumes, sets, props, lights), sattvika (emotional expression evoking empathy in the audience). A range of rasas (emotions) were portrayed by the actors.

I laughed, I clapped, I shouted out in response to actors’ questions. I was right there in the moment. And when it ended, I sobbed uncontrollably in Mama White’s arms. They were not tears of sadness but intense joy or “ananda bhashpam” as they call it in Sanskrit. And in a strange but reassuring way, I felt very healed by what I had witnessed.

 Madam White & Auntie Green (image from the Mama White Snake Programme Book)   

Madam White & Auntie Green (image from the Mama White Snake Programme Book)