Sri Lankan Theater Group Leaves An Impression
Syed Ali Mujtaba
Three strangely normal plays about life in Sri Lanka particularly in the context of the ongoing war between the Tamil ethnic minority and the Sinhala majority were staged at the Chennai’s Music Academy on Sunday August 5, 2007. Stages Theatre Group, Colombo, performed these plays as part of the theater festival organized by ‘Metro Plus’ of The Hindu newspaper from August 2-12, 2007.
These plays made special appeal to those who follow the events in the island nation on day to basis. It refreshed the memories of the events that happened not so long ago.
Director Ruwanthie de Chickera, writer Dhananjaya Karunaratna and entire cast of the Stages Theatre Group from Colombo deserve special accolade for putting up such a brilliant performance. Their work speaks volumes about Sri Lankan theater that thrives even in a war like situation in this tear drop island.
The first performance was "Last Bus Eke Kathawa" a one-man Sinhala play based on a true story that took place during the 1989 JVP insurrection. Skillfully woven story within story, the child and wife of the protagonist’s were whisked away by some one in power and authority. The protagonist having failed to get his family back becomes a mental wreck. He boards the last bus in the dead of the night, in a drunken state, and narrates his chilling story to the sitting passengers. In the end he rewards them with currency notes that he generously strews all over the place. This stereotype that was pushed to the extreme touched the deep chord of the audience sitting in the darkness of the hall.
Gihan de Chickera performed this one man play with tremendous zest and perfect sense of comedy. His narrating style, mutating body with perfect ease and shifts in the tone of his language were all amazing. The drunken in him won hands down.
The second play ‘24 Hrs,’ was based entirely on actual news headlines that were reported between 7 am on August the 14th to 7 am August the 15th, 2006. This play written within the discipline of verbatim theatre used the auction bids as a canvas to highlight media reports. The suicide attack on Pakistan’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka, the bombing of Jaffana school children and many more news items refreshed the memory of blood and gore that’s splashed all over the island nation in that 24 hrs.
The third play was called ‘Check Point’. It was part of the ‘forum theatre’ that begun with the performance of a scene that ends in a crisis. The audience was then asked to resolve this crisis. The concluding scenes are enacted based on the suggestion offered by those watching the play.
The scene was a Sinhala girl is married to a Tamil boy and both live in Colombo. An 18 year old boy from Jaffana comes down to live with this family for getting his visa to UK. The lady of the house is unaware about the presence of the Tamil boy. She comes to know only from her brother and sister in law inquires about the boy during their visit to the house for a dinner.
The brother refuses to entertain the idea of a Tamil boy living in her sister’s house. He wants his brother in law to throw out this boy at once. He does not want her sister’s house to be raided for want of terrorists. An altercation takes place resulting in a crisis.
The audience was asked to engage in creative thinking to play out this story. There was great deal of participation and many suggestions were put into circulation. The group performed three additional scenes, following the storyline proposed interactively.
One among them was, a police raid takes place and the identification of all the characters was done. The boy could not prove his identity and was whisked away.
The beauty of ‘Checkpoint’ was that the entire script was devised on the spot and the scenes were enacted with little or no instruction from the director. It was remarkable that the actors were able to develop the idea of the audience into full-fledged scenes, without any rehearsal.
‘Checkpoint’ narrates the difficulties of those living in Colombo. The citizens are subjected to security checks, even for commuting small distances. They can not step out of their homes without their identity cards. They have to show their IDs to the uniform personals stationed at several Checkpoints in the city. How life is back in Colombo, at least that’s what the characters of the play wanted to convey to the audience in Chennai.
‘Checkpoint’ was first performed in Colombo in 2001 in the turbulent times of the pre-ceasefire agreement. It was enacted again in 2006 in the midst of great uncertainty and unrest in Sri Lanka. The August 5, 2007 performance in Chennai was first of its kind outside the country.
The first play presented the problem, the second highlighted it with the media reports, and the third was an effort towards its solution. There was gradual building of tempo, actors, sets and even lighting from one play to another. The performances also moved from one level to another. The first had a solo actor holding the audience the second few talented artists auctioned the media reports, and the third involved audience interaction.
The three strangely normal plays from Sri Lanka was a feast to the audience of Chennai. The performances demonstrated the brilliance of Sri Lankan theater. Many in the hall felt that serious issues may not necessarily be told through emotional scenes. Over all it was a satisfying experience on a lazy Sunday evening.
-- Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai, India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org