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Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘Building a Character’ by Wild Rice and Ruth Tang

Building a Character, a monologue with actress Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, was presented as part of W!ld Rice‘s Singapore Theatre Festival, and ran at the Creative Cube at LASALLE College of the Arts from July 5 – 8 2018.

Inspired by Konstantin Stanislavski’s book of the same title and written by Ruth Tang, Building a Character has Dorai talk about her life and her experiences as a Singaporean-Indian actor who refuses to take on roles that have her swearing or that have her Indian-ness mocked or degraded.

Dorai presents the problems she faces as one of the very few fairly prominent Indian stage actors of this generation. Racism still rears its ugly head, even in an open-minded community like that of the arts in Singapore. Casting directors are amused by the way she speaks, she contends, and many want the Singapore-Indian characters for which she auditions to be portrayed more like the India-Indian characters they see in Tamil and Bollywood movies and in India-made TV shows. Don’t Singaporeans realise Singaporean-Indians speak like every other Singaporean on the island?! Why would a Singaporean-Indian shake her head, hit hard on her T’s, and get her V’s and W’s reversed when she grew up in Singapore, and not in India?

So it’s with much worry that Dorai has to tackle these issues that sadly still plague our country after generations of Singaporean-Indians have been living, working and playing amongst the general population.

Amidst observations of how her race causes difficulties in her acting career in Singapore, with racist casting and limited roles for minority races, Dorai also examines her home life, her parents, and her upbringing, and gives us a very raw and emotional look at the sometimes-troubling background from which she has emerged.

Dorai’s hour-long performance was fun to watch, and she used her great skills at singing and imitating accents to full effect. The one thing I felt was jarring was when she said casting directors can’t accept her acquired ‘ang moh’ (Western-tinged) accent, which, she claims, has become a natural part of the way she speaks. The thing is, as much as Dorai started off with an affected and clearly fake ‘ang moh’ accent, she soon slipped into her more natural Singapore accent which she utilized in passages that called for Singlish and for English.

Dorai’s insistence that this Western accent that she picked up from TV is ‘natural,’ although she has never lived outside of Singapore to be able to acquire one organically, is one of the things wrong with our industry. Why are so many young actors, born and bred on this island, and mostly fresh graduates from LaSalle (as is Dorai herself), adamant about putting on a bogus pretentious accent they claim is ‘real’ – when at times, said accent is neither British, American nor Australian and just sounds like some weird amalgamation of all accents on earth? Does this pseudo accent make them feel special? Or more accepted? Does it get them more roles? And why is the natural Singapore accent so repulsive?

I wished that this performance could have answered these questions or otherwise shown that the Singapore accent, which Dorai herself possesses, is one that we all should be proud to present in our films, TV and theatre. Yes, it’s quite absurd for Singapore’s casting personnel to expect Singapore Indians to have an India-Indian accent (along with the requisite head movements and gestures), but it is equally ridiculous to shun the Singapore accent when that’s your natural way of speaking.

About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.

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