A performance that touches the soul

Aug 19, 2023

, Lianhe Zaobao

The last staging of Chachambo: Taking Flight by ART:DIS Singapore on 6 August 2023 was one of few performances that, in many years, had touched my soul. The script was written by 23-year-old visually impaired playwright Claire Teo, who also acted as the main protagonist Liang Ming Zhu in the music theatre piece. She had gone through many struggles to save the only entertainment club in Singapore that employs persons with disabilities – from the high expectations of her overbearing mother, to the loss of her first love. Intertwined with love, hate, kindness and anger, Claire (whose vision is only the size of a coin) is cruel to herself but gentle with others, expressing her heart with clear words and moving songs on stage.

Other characters in the play include the caregiver who takes care of Ming Zhu, her first love, the image of her mother when she was young, the staff of the club… All of them were played by professionally trained actors with disabilities – three of whom are visually impaired, three are autistic, two are persons living with Down Syndrome, another two are Deaf and a vocal artist who has muscular dystrophy. One of the visually impaired actors, Wan Wai Yee (pictured below left in purple), is also a singer. She has been performing since 1995 and is a veteran in the busking scene. In Chachambo, she plays two roles – Liang Bao Yu (Ming Zhu’s mother) and Hong Mei Gui (the lead singer of the entertainment club). Her ability to emote whilst singing brought thunderous applause with every song.

The honest and earnest performance made audiences question the identity of these actors, as they blur the lines between professionals and amateurs, between persons with or without disabilities. It is hard for us to tell the difference but it is not difficult to imagine just how much blood, sweat and tears were shed during rehearsals to get to this point. From my seat in the stalls, I can clearly see a glistening in their eyes when they expressed their true feelings and how their expressions convulsed with uncontrollable emotions.

Their hard work and perseverance are a huge inspirational force for many. Let me share a quote the playwright and main actor Claire Teo said: “It was my first time acting with a Deaf person. I couldn’t see her sign language, and she couldn’t fully hear my voice. So we used tactile sign language to break through barriers and communicate deeply with our soul. We let go of many preconceived notions to collaborate with other actors with different disabilities, and performed with each other in an inclusive manner. We hope that this show will leave a lasting impact on many and build a more respectful society.”

Indeed, non-disabled individuals often view artists with disabilities with curious or sympathetic eyes. But that it not what they need. Instead, what they need most is the opportunity to build self-confidence, to be able to express their inner feelings through art and to gain the recognition/respect of others.

This music theatre work was directed by Peter Sau, who is a rare bilingual actor and director in Singapore. Alongside Yeo Yann Yann, who also played the role of Liang Bao Yu on screen and delivered a delicate monologue, they are both pioneer graduands from the Intercultural Theatre Institute that was founded by late-theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun. The only non-disabled actor on stage was Jo Kwek, who played the receptionist (pictured above right). As the narrator, she will also sometimes voice the inner monologues of Deaf actors and describe nuances of the performance so that visually-impaired audiences can follow the narrative.

Chachambo: Taking Flight combined the strengths and skills of both professional and amateur artists, disabled and non-disabled people. It resonated with passion, tenderness and received great support from the audience. It was really a rare and memorable performance.

Read the original review in mandarin here

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