About a decade ago, I walked into the PJ Live Arts theatre in Petaling Jaya for what was a one-woman show with featured guests. It was entitled “1Sex 1Money 1Scandal: The Virus Returns (1S1M1S)”. It would be my first encounter with the — almost — full range of Jo Kukathas’ alter egos, from a minister, an ex-beauty queen and a clueless civil servant to a cantankerous judge and, refreshingly, a rude, loudmouthed, gum-chewing girl from Sentul with a British accent.
It was a breathtaking performance, one that springs to mind as I walk into CHAI — an inconspicuous suburban home in a quiet old part of Petaling Jaya that Jo calls home along with several cats. The airy but cosy space doubles as the Instant Café Theatre House of Arts and Ideas aka CHAI, the regular meeting and brainstorming place for theatre actors and writers.
It would have been the base for many late-night powwows recently — always the case with Instant Café shows, I am told — as writers Kam Raslan, Zalfian Fuzi and Na’a Murad sat down with Jo to write her latest show, simply entitled The May 9 Show, which opens this week. Hosted by Sean Ghazi in the guise of a talk show, it will once again feature a few special guests. But this time, only two main “characters” will show up — the enduring YBeeee and the new kid on the block, Curry Spice.
The woman I sit down with is a world away from the personas she creates on stage. At 56, Jo is in every regard a theatre veteran, a pioneer even, being one of the founding members of Instant Café Theatre and its only artistic director left after the others moved on. Incidentally, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the company — three decades since a bunch of young, seemingly irreverent theatre enthusiasts boldly decided that a mirror needed to be held up to the Malaysian sociopolitical scene, and that it would be done in the form of political satire and comedy.
In person, Jo does not look like someone who embraces what many would consider a cynical form of art. Introspective and soft-spoken, she delivers her thoughts — whether rapidly, off the cuff or deliberately — with disarming unaffectedness. This blend of earnestness and wit, in hindsight, spills over into her stage alter egos.
The ability to create depth and even soul for a persona that could easily veer into caricature is what allows Jo to bring out someone like YBeeee some 29 years later in what is supposed to be Malaysia Baru, and put him back in the spotlight.
“He has been around for about as long as Instant Café. And he has always been in power, in the government, but now he no longer is. After last year’s election, a lot of people asked me, ‘What does YBeeee think of all this?’ So I thought maybe I should just dust off his songkok — raided from the closet of Jit Murad’s father, along with the bush jacket — and take him out of the closet and ask him,” says Jo.
She speaks of her characters often in the third person, consciously (or maybe subconsciously), giving them an identity of their own. Explaining the story behind what is probably her most popular character, she says even though YBeeee was created to be a bit of a loser — always a deputy minister, never quite a successful one — and despicable in nature, somehow, he has evolved into a persona everyone likes, even real politicians, one of whom, it is said, would only attend an event if Instant Café Theatre was performing. The same politician sat in the audience in 2010 when YBeeee went on about him by name.
“For me, he was never based on any particular politician. In fact, race wasn’t a factor until I decided to wear a songkok, which was more to hide my hair and complete the look. I mean, there are characteristics of specific figures, I suppose, like how people assume it is Tun Mahathir (Mohamad). But he’s a mere cipher, taking on the mantle of whoever is in power. Which is why we had a long discussion about him post-May 9. Did he win a seat? We decided he needed to — he can’t have lost power completely, otherwise he loses himself. So, it has been interesting to figure out things with YBeeee with a new government in place,” Jo says.
Where YBeeee was created deliberately to address the political shenanigans that were going on in the country, Curry Spice was unexpectedly inspired.
The story goes that while buying a wig for another popular character of hers, Ribena Berry, a massive Afro wig caught her attention, and before she knew it, she had put it on and “felt a bit possessed”. It gave her an accent and some swagger, and later, when doing a photo shoot for Berry, she asked if some photos could be taken of her in the new wig. Helped by a stylist and make-up artist, a new character was about to be born.
“As the photographer was taking shots of me, he asked, ‘What’s your name?’ I didn’t know, but she (the character) just replied. Earlier, he had said, ‘Oh, you’re like a scary Spice Girl’, and so I said, ‘No, not Scary Spice, I’m Curry Spice’.”
In talking about her characters, the actor and director mentions the word “truth” more than once. The aim, she acknowledges, is always to present the truth. “If YBeeee is about lies, everything he says is a lie. But in the lies you see truth, right? Then, Curry Spice is someone who is more directly trying to tell the truth, saying it as it is. I realised that her strength was that she was a rude girl, but I would also call her a great girl. It’s time to hear what the young people have to say, especially in the last couple of years with the Me Too movement. Curry Spice is unlike any of my other characters, much braver than I, and it is very liberating to play her.”
It seems apt that on the 30th anniversary of the founding of Instant Café Theatre, the company returns to how it first carved a place in the Malaysian theatre narrative by faithfully dedicating itself to capturing the zeitgeist of things and responding to what is happening in Malaysian society.
“Political comedy wasn’t the only thing we wanted to do, which is why we decided not to have a manifesto as a company — to not limit ourselves. But instead, we tried to figure out what this country was, and who we were as a theatre company,” Jo recalls.
Three decades on — those who managed to get a ticket to attend D’State of D’Nation in 2015 would have seen a reunion of the majority of the huge amount of talent that has passed through the theatre company’s revolving doors — what is Instant Café’s legacy?
Besides being a nurturing platform for many of Malaysia’s theatre practitioners, who, in turn, helped shape our theatre scene, there are now more people doing political comedy. So, Jo’s plan now is to make the company a platform for developing new, perhaps more serious, more full-length works. “The idea of incubation has always been important to me. People have found our writing process messy but it is what it is. There’s a lot of pacing around the house, a lot of thinking that you’ll never get there, a lot of self-doubt and second-guessing, then breakthroughs and finished scripts, only to tear up whole scripts and throw them away. It’s about collaboration and a very honest way of working — to be able to say to each other that it’s not good or funny enough.
“I want to say to people, writers, ‘take time with your works’. Because of a lack of funding, people often feel that if they have something, they have to put it on stage. But if you’re a young writer, you want your first piece out there to be really damn good. Jit Murad’s first play was Gold Rain and Hailstones. All the writing before with sketches was incubation,” she says.
Which brings us back to The May 9 Show. Rather than a grand shebang in the vein of D’State of D’Nation, the relatively low-key anniversary performance is being done with fundraising in mind. Keen to restart the FirstWorks and Almost True Stories writing programmes, the artistic director says her job now is to raise enough money to ensure the longevity of what she calls “still a very small theatre company”.
“I also don’t want to remain the artistic director all my life. I want other people to take over but I need to find the funds to make it attractive for them to join,” she says candidly. “Now, I think if you want to do theatre, you need to do it full-time. But it’s really hard to have talented people if you have no money.”
Practicalities aside, the show is also timely in the light of the major political change that took place on May 9 last year. Those close to Jo will know it is no secret that she has been waiting for that day ever since returning to Malaysia after having spent her formative years abroad. However, a satirist never sleeps and there are critical opinions on the new government’s performance to date.
In a world where “political” is a dirty word, Jo embraces it without qualms. “For me, theatre is political. It is the most political of all the arts, in fact, since it reflects what it means to be human in our society, especially in a country like Malaysia where politics is so dominant.”
Pointing out how an article once labelled her as being “obsessed” with being Malaysian, Jo says that is not the case. In fact, she hates the increasingly nationalistic fervour that is sweeping the world today. “I am political but I see people as being more spiritual than national beings. I think it’s the idea of imposed identity that I am against, of wanting to see everything through a nationalistic perspective. My maternal grandfather came from Sri Lanka, settled down in Ipoh, bought a patch of land and planted, and planted — putting down roots. My paternal grandfather too, he was a civil servant, and he was moved to Section 1 in PJ when it was just red dust. He planted an orchard and built the first Indian temple there with his friends.
“These are people who made it (Malaysia) their home. So you build, you put down roots and you stay. But who knows, maybe your children won’t. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean you don’t belong. I think wherever people are, they should have a right to belong. That said, I do theatre about the notions of belonging and identity because — it’s a paradox maybe — you have to struggle with belonging even as you feel you do. Because somebody is always going to tell you that you don’t or who makes you feel you have less rights for whatever reason … but I believe our identity as human beings is far greater.”
'The May 9 Show' is showing at DPAC until May 18. For ticketing details and showtimes, see here. The article first appeared on May 6, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.