The legacy of the ‘People’s Poet’ continues under the wing of creative youths
By LYDIA NATHAN
IT HAS been 18 years since he passed away, but few Malaysians are familiar with the works of Datuk Dr Usman Awang.
Thanks to the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (Klpac), however, we will be able to get to know some of the National Laureate’s masterpieces in Don’t Let Usman Awang Know.
To celebrate what would be Usman’s 90th birthday on July 12, Klpac — with the Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat and MUKA Space — put a spin on his works through seven short plays.
The plays — Guru Oh Guru, Calling 1969, Almari: Perjuangan, Trapped, Udara, Pisang Goreng and Kekasih — will be in Cantonese, Mandarin, English and Malay.
Six directors and a choreographer worked to put these pieces together with their own creative twists. They are Mon Lim, Giant Liang Ka En, Zhafir Muzani, Apple Yong, Easee Gan, Zheng Xi Yong and Fauzi Amirudin.
Hailing from a small town in Johor, Usman was a playwright, poet and novelist with works that explored themes of love, racial harmony, and social justice.
He was known as the “People’s Poet” as his writing touched Malaysians’ hearts regardless of age, race or gender.
Usman had won many literary awards, including the SEA Write Award (1982) and National Laureate (1983).
His talent and achievements were extraordinary, considering he stopped schooling at a very young age due to his family’s financial limitations.
He was a forced labourer during the Japanese invasion and worked as a policeman during the British colonisation in Malaya.
Usman died on Nov 29, 2001.
The Malaysian Reserve (TMR) spoke to three cast members from two of the plays, who said it was an honour to be able to take a source of inspiration and reimagine it in a different way.
Trapped actress Jacqueline Teng, who studied music when she was younger, told TMR the play was inspired by Usman’s poem Jiwa Hamba (Enslaved Soul) and revolved around trapped souls within human beings.
“This play is a musical in Mandarin. We want to challenge ourselves and do a musical, but in a different language. Mandarin musicals are a little under-represented today, but there are so many good works out there,” she said.
Teng added that despite most of Usman’s works being in Malay, the same messages were relatable to all backgrounds and generations.
“This project has become very meaningful to us and we feel it is important for us to showcase his works,” she said.
Another Trapped cast member Toh Shir Ling said she initially joined Klpac as a singer and songwriter, but had wanted to explore more of the arts scene and found herself immensely enjoying working on musicals.
“I’m very fortunate to be a part of this today and to get to know these amazing and influential people who lived before us.
“One of the main things I found from reading and researching his works was, it didn’t matter if it was in the past or present, the struggles people face every day are the same,” Toh said.
She added that her team of seven threw ideas out and brainstormed what could work, changing the script a few times.
“We did not want it to be too heavy for the audience, as each play is roughly about 10 minutes, but it is important for us to convey the message successfully to the audience,” Toh said, adding that they had about a month to rehearse.
Another play, Pisang Goreng (Banana Fritter), inspired by Usman’s poetry Penjual Air Batu (Ice Seller) is about a city council officer who finds a connection with a street vendor he is meant to impose a fine on.
Its director and actor, Zheng Xi Yong, said he was looking for opportunities to act but was asked if he wanted to direct the project instead.
Zheng made his professional debut in the UK and is currently based there, but is back in Kuala Lumpur on a quick break before he returns.
“Like many people, I didn’t know much about Usman’s works, so I think this play is a great (way) for everyone to know a little bit of what he had written. He truly loved his country and was a patriotic person, passionate about social justice. This project has been a steep learning curve for me,” he said.
Zheng is excited to see the audience’s response.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how our audience responds to this play. I see the level of awareness (of theatre) rising lately, which is good. Some of the regular theatregoers today are between 16 and 30 years old,” he noticed.
Zheng said theatre, in general, has a creative way of sparking conversations on social change.
“In countries like the US or UK, I’ve seen current issues being discussed in plays. It’s a bunch of people who are brave enough to converse about them, and with initiatives like this today, the industry is bound to go mainstream,” he said.
Teng opined that Malaysia is not lacking in talent at all, and there has been a continuous growth in originality today.
“We see a lot of original music and writers with really good ideas. Theatre is like a magical world where not everyone understands it, but it is meant for everyone. The best way to experience it is to watch it for yourself,” she said.
Meanwhile, the three cast members said they are looking forward to being on stage and are hoping for a full house.
There will be five shows from July 11-14.
“We are very excited to perform, but more importantly, to reach out and touch people through the powerful messages in the plays,” Teng said.