By Dia Hakim
I entered Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes with a myriad of feelings and a very limited archive of Myle Yan Tay’s work in me. I had become acquainted with his work through his direction of the 2021 staging of Brown Is Haram, and the 2022 publication of Brown Is Redacted, of which he was a co-editor. Both bodies of work have influenced me greatly throughout my own artistic career — both works, though in different mediums that may reach different audiences, offer a sense of respite. Of solidarity, even. Especially if you resonate with the many experiences that come with identifying as brown — the discrimination, the otheredness, the brown enough — when brownness is constantly being put into question by ourselves and society at large, it can be hard to find a solid sense of identity and community.
Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes sustains Yan Tay’s continued interest in excavating contemporary notions of brownness — what is authentically brown in a Singaporean lens, and what it means to be a brown person in this tiny city-state. In contrast to the more academic nature of Brown Is Redacted, I was greeted with the rude awakening of the Brown Boys… world. Set in a living room of a landed property designed by Petrina Dawn Tan, one can get the sense that the safe space to explore brownness in Yan Tay’s previous bodies of work is about to shift. The set is objectively gorgeous, dripping with atas — with so much attention to detail ranging from the bar in the left corner, expensive looking wallpaper, and so forth. Its decor on the whole is reminiscent of upper class homes owned by Chinese families. A sense of dissonance almost, smelling like privilege.
I couldn’t help but allow my excitement and anxiety for this show to sink in as I took a seat. As a nonbinary person with complex experiences with race, gender and the patriarchy, I knew I had to be prepared for my discomfort and familiarity to surface because of my own experiences as a Malay person. Identity, it seems, is a talking point that brown artists are constantly digging up, a continued insistence to spotlight the many faces of “brown” that keep getting suppressed — whether by the state, its citizens, or existing systems of capitalism that we live with.
The show opens with Scott (Ebi Shankara) having just touched down from the US, letting himself into a house, which is slowly revealed to be the house of running electoral candidate Tesh (Gosteloa Spancer). Other members of the ensemble arrive — Fizzy (Adib Kosnan) bringing in his baggage and cynicism of an online activist, Dev (Krish Natarajan) bursting with almost man-boy like energy of regression, and Adam (Shahid Nasheer): poised, curt and well-read — the evening evolves to be a reunion of sorts, after years of not seeing each other as a group.
In the first half hour, it seems like the most unlikely group of friends. Each of them have vastly different priorities and careers, with the exception of Tesh, Fizzy and Adam all being heavily involved with politics or the civic society space. The years of separation — 8 years to be exact, as Tesh calculates whilst the group reminisces on good days left in the past — has created the rift in a friendship gone stale. The walls between each of the ensemble in the beginning, reminiscent of that weird toxic masculine feeling men often perpetuate in their friendships, left me confused as to why these men were friends at all.
But as the night wears on, we see that the bulk of their dynamic is built on many things bubbling below the surface, almost ready to boil. The homoeroticism that undercuts toxic masculinity in straight up offensive jokes about each other, the kinship built on apologia, the looming emotional suppression that leads to drunken yelling and physical fights. Even in absence, the men reveal to have hurt each other throughout their friendship, their past and present lives seething with built up hurt and resentment — gone unexpressed, festering. It’s disconcerting to watch at times, as a non-male audience member. I am reminded of the way the patriarchy clamps its foot down on men as well, how it has conditioned them to never truly be themselves around each other.
There is a distinct, crimson shade of anger that is displayed in the play, sitting comfortably with the layer of masculinity. Tesh and Dev most prominently are insistent that their positions as politician and pop star will create a difference in their respective fields, an insistence to take up space they feel they deserve. It’s an anger felt by many minorities or oppressed groups, as articulated by black feminist Brittany Cooper: “the rage is a kind of refusal. To be made a fool of, to be silenced, to be shamed, or to stand for anyone’s bullshit.” An inner uprising that has led to external forms of rebellion in their adult lives, through politics, online activism, music or otherwise. It’s a reminder of the all too familiar feeling of being a minority constantly trying to prove their worth, an attempt to take up space they deserve to be in — but sometimes feel othered and left out from still. Adam in particular provides a main contrasting perspective besides his peers, having given up on his dreams of changing the status quo.
What struck me the most was the play’s intentional use of the word brown. When it is revealed that Tesh’s intentions for reunion is to get his friends to discredit an incriminatory video of him in his past, the ensemble deliberates on whether or not to support him on this PR stunt. They argue back and forth about their position in a society that has actively let them down. Fizzy at one point making a stance about how Tesh is not “brown enough” for having Chinese blood and being of a higher class than them, and Scott is belittled by the group constantly for easily taking sides, his subtle co-opting of American lingo frowned on.
These heated debates call back the questions I pondered after reading Brown Is Redacted — Who is brown? How is brownness experienced, defined in Singapore? It is clear that each of these men have strong feelings about being the other, and that “brown” is something each of the men are still trying to define for themselves. Brown is a weighted word, given a different meaning to them and how they enact their brownness into the world. Tesh and Dev through visibility, Scott, Adam and Fizzy through their anger and resignation in their careers, passions and political stances.
Over the years, I have been constantly pondering about my own “brownness,” and what that means to me. My own brown identity is constantly intersecting with other aspects of me, existing within the dichotomy of brown/queer, brown/disabled. I wonder how we can confront intersections that exist within the brown experience — especially within the context of Singapore, where ethnicity and citizenship also heavily intersect. A common thing I share with the Brown Boys is also the privilege of being Singaporean. Our brownness is not as turbulent as a migrant worker’s, for instance. But perhaps there is only so much that five men, in relatively privileged positions — that they continue to be in after the play ends — can explore in two hours.
Ultimately, Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes invites its audience to look heavily into the self, brown or not. It does not transcend its brownness, where the individual is acknowledged as more than brown — instead it teases, laughs and mocks itself in its process. It examines hierarchies that even marginalised communities can still uphold towards each other. Perhaps brownness may never be solely defined by one person or experience. But as Brown Is Redacted articulates — perhaps it is simply the act of rupture, and resistance. And that itself is brown enough.
Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 151.
Each response published on Critics Circle Blog is paired with a statement from the writer where their politic, entry point, purpose, and intended audience is made clear.
Writing this review came from a very personal place, with many experiences of existing as a brown, gender non conforming Singaporean. I hope that brown audiences — who have seen the play, and might be reading this review — feel comforted by a plethora of artists constantly dissecting our identities, in new, intersectional ways. Any invitation to look within the self is important, and it is pertinent to hold space for these self evaluations.
This response to ‘Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes‘ was written at the invitation of Checkpoint Theatre, who provided our writers with complimentary tickets in order to write the review.
Ong Sor Fern in The Straits Times
Naeem Kapadia on Crystalwords
Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes
Venue: Drama Centre Black Box
Performed: 23 March- 2 April, 2023
Producing Company: Checkpoint Theatre
Playwright: Myle Yan Tay
Director/Dramaturg/Costume Designer: Huzir Sulaiman
Cast: Ebi Shankara, Adib Kosnan, Shahid Nasheer, Krish Natarajan, Gosteloa Spancer, Isabella Chiam, Lareina Tham, Vishnucharan Naidu, Hang Qian Chou, Chaney Chia.
Set/Lighting Designer: Petrina Dawn Tan
Assistant to Set Designer: Nurfadhli Jasni
Sound Designer: Shah Tahir
Hair & Make-up Artist: Norehan Fong-Harun
Producer: Claire Wong, Huzir Sulaiman
Production Stage Manager: Izz Sumono
Production Assistants: Kay Lynn Er, Nadia Ferdy
Marketing and Publicity: Jayne Lim, Tricia Tan, Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips, Faith Ng
Development and Engagement: Chaney Chia
Graphic Design: Marc Gabriel Loh
Production Photography and Videography: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures
Intern: Eunice Tan
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