One of the essential requirements of a free, open, and democratic society is the ability to laugh at oneself. Theatre-goers have been party to government critiques and satire for as long as actors have dared to portray their version of reality on stage. There is something cathartic and even wholesome to be able to laugh at stereotypes and paint with broad strokes in order to see oneself and a society-at-large in a new light.
Recently I was chatting with someone in the theatre scene in Malaysia (but not connected to this production) and this person said that Malaysia has long wanted to follow America in laughing at their leaders, in exposing criticism through laughter, and just having the ability to lighten up and not take each other so seriously.
That is exactly what “In a Nutty Shell” accomplishes so well.
I’m not conversant in Bahasa Malay, Chinese, or Tamil, but that did not distract me from seeing the wonderfully distinct ethnic groups and stereotypes displayed on stage. The entire play takes place in a mamak coffee stall with three friends – Chinese, Malay, and Indian – chatting about life in Malaysia on a typical Friday morning.
The dialogue is funny and poignant. (If you are not Malaysia, you may want to bone-up on Malaysia’s political scene. Get to know your abbreviations: BN, MCA, MIC, etc…) It’s like listening in on the secret thoughts of the three most prominent races in Malaysia. Through the complaining about the “lazy Malays”, the “rich Chinese”, or the uniquely different Indians, the audience begins to get a clearer view of this richly diverse yet fragilely held together country. As the Chinese man said: “everyone tolerates because they have to.”
That may very well be the case, but one gets the sense by watching the wonderful interaction between the three main actors on stage that there is much more camaraderie and country pride present than is readily admitted.
And this is, perhaps, the point. Malaysia is a beautiful cross-section of religion, ethnicity, and culture. It has existed that way for a long time, and while it is not without problems, it has created a beautiful mosaic in the midst of Southeast Asia. If only the groups themselves would look past differences and see the potential of its vibrant and lovely people.
“In a Nutty Shell” finishes its debut run in Penang tomorrow (Sunday, August 17) at PenangPAC (Straits Quay) 3PM.
If you are in town, please stop in a for a great laugh and a little lesson on Malaysian life.