A Fine Line that Connects and Cuts
By Crispin Rodrigues
Potong: To Care/Cut
Between moments of levity and seriousness, Johnny Jon Jon's Potong: To Care/Cut presents the complexity of living in a culturally multifaceted space where religion is given the same respect as sexual identity, where the difference between order and conformity, and chaos is a fine line. With all the complexity in its moving parts, Jon Jon's plays nicely fit alongside the canon of Singaporean playwrights.
There are two plays in the collection: Hawa and Potong. In both of these plays, there is a constant revisitation of both caring and cutting – whether to keep connections going or cut ties, whether to cut out personal history or embrace it, and whether to adopt complex identifiers or narrow one down to simplistic identity markers. Both these themes add to the richness of navigating what might be taboo issues in the Malay-Muslim community.
In Hawa, main character Siti is looking to give her partner Sarah a proper Muslim burial but is unfamiliar with the Muslim rites of final ablutions, and so she hires a conservative undertaker to help her with the process. What ensues is both hilarious and deeply moving. At this juncture, it must be said that this isn't the first play that deals with burial rites and rituals. Heck, it isn't the first play to deal with a law-by-law undertaker/burial representative. Kuo Pao Kun's The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole (1985) also features the hilarity of an undertaker trying to negotiate the overbearing rules of burial in a Singapore grave plot with a grieving family member. Likewise, Jean Tay's Boom (2008) features a civil servant engaging with a corpse over exhumation procedures. Both these plays feature humour when rigid institutional procedures are juxtaposed with typically taboo issues in Asian culture. Hawa features undertaker Ahmad trying to assist Siti with Sarah's final ablutions but is unable to do so due to her gender, as well as Siti's discomfort with her own inability to perform Islamic rites properly as she is a new convert. Here, taboo issues of death and ritual are cut through by Ahmad's seeming lack of compassion as he haggles the cost of the funeral with Siti, while also adhering to his strict religious beliefs. The sudden inclusion of public griever Zaki, who goes to funerals to "work my game", creates more confusion as he acts as the go-between between Ahmad and Siti in order to have Siti's lover buried by the time of Zuhr (the prayer at sunset). What is interesting is how fine the line is between humour and seriousness, as Siti's grief is cut by low brow humour with Zaki and Ahmad referring to each other by WWE wrestler monikers, before returning to the spiritual strength of grievers. This is best exemplified in Ahmad's frustration (I have quoted the English translation here):
What is there to wait any further for? If I'm the one being buried, I can wait. In peace and grace, I'll ask that the angels be patient and wait. But if it's burying others, I can't. Time is money!
We also see a scene in which Zaki reminisces about his mother's love for him and this represents a huge tonal shift of the play into more sombre tone as he recollects parental love. This is juxtaposed against a flashback scene of Siti confronting Sarah's father Karim, to which he is unable to accept her relationship with his daughter, which results in the apparent lack of familial support at the start of the play. This secondary theme of family carries the emotional weight of the entire play, and while I did find an exploration into Siti's lack of support necessary, I felt that it is a huge tonal shift for a play that tries to balance seriousness with humour.
I also did not really understand the framing of each scene with a tarot card, because it does not really fit with the procedural unfolding of the play, but it could just be my lack of knowledge on the topic.
I did find Hawa extremely amusing in the way that, despite its humour which could be corny at times, the undergirding message of balance remains such a key theme throughout the play that sets it apart from its predecessors.
The second play of the collection, Potong, focuses on lead character Adam and his return to Singapore to not only serve his national service, but also to undergo circumcision as per Islamic rites. After visiting a clinic where the audience hears a dozen or so penis cutting jokes, Adam pays a visit to his uncle, Saleh, who is now dressing as a women and is calling herself Saleha. Like Hawa, humour cuts through many of the serious moments here as we learn that Saleha dresses as a woman as his mother prefers her sister – Adam's mother, Siti – and has yet to come to terms on her departure from Singapore due to her dementia. We also learn of Saleha's difficult acceptance of her own sexual identity due to her religious beliefs. However, throughout the play, this is undergirded by sexual jokes regarding Adam's circumcision. The climax occurs when Saleha organises a kenduri for Adam's circumcision and invites the doctor who is performing the rite on him, Dini. As Dini and Saleha debate whether Siti wants a dick pic of her son's circumcision, Adam receives news that his mother has passed on due to her dementia. Here, the themes that is enshrined in the play's title of Potong comes full circle as Adam's circumcision, which was a way of keeping his connections to his faith and identity, ultimately are severed as he decides to return home, and presumably (because of Singapore's Enlistment Act) never returns. At the same time, in a strange Kafkaesque twist, Saleha is also free to be who she is and not playing her sister's role in the family:
ADAM: How did Nenek take it?
Potong's heaviness is not so much on the following of Islamic rites but comes from a deep lack of communication as individuals are cut off from those they love and try to reconnect – this ultimately proves fruitless, except at the end where Saleha and Adam finally find commonality over the love of their mothers.
Both Hawa and Potong tackle difficult, often taboo, topics in the Asian context, but while both plays explore heavy issues, humour is never far away. This makes Jon Jon's plays extremely Singaporean in nature as he challenges the status quo of what we can and perhaps should laugh about.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 3 Jul 2022