That there is a drag show in the line-up of The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat’s two-year 30th anniversary programme is interesting enough. To have director Joe Hasham at the helm and Mark Beau de Silva write and star in the show makes it all the more intriguing.
Men in Heels stars de Silva, Zhafir Muzani and Ivan Chan as three drag performers — Ilya aka SAHARA aka Labia binti Labu, Bryan aka Double Entendre, and Peter aka Caroline Tan Sik Nee — who open up about their lives beneath the glitz and glamour.
There are characteristics of a cabaret as they lip-sync to a list of female anthems, girl power songs, love songs and pop classics. “Nothing by men”, laughs de Silva. The show promises to be irreverent and funny but, along with it, “achingly poignant”.
Those familiar with de Silva’s work would attest to his ability to craft distinctively Malaysian stories that speak to the heart, so one can expect a somewhat different tone than anticipated of an extravaganza with not one, but three drag queens.
“When Joe first had the idea for a drag show, he asked me if I wanted to write the script, and I thought, ‘How do I write a script about song and dance?’” recounts de Silva. Digging into his own experiences and past (a hallmark of the award-winning playwright’s works), he crafted a story in reverse: “Basically, I had this end story, at the beginning, of these three performers. But where did they start? Where does it come from, the thinking behind a person who dresses as another gender?”
With all the attention LGBT issues have been getting lately in the country, the cast are well aware of the connotations that come with a drag show, but point out that it is a good way to — in a manner of speaking — unveil and humanise some of these issues.
“We don’t get intellectual about it in Men in Heels but, certainly, there are three very different ‘women’ in the story, who represent the diversity of what public perception often lumps into a common derogatory category like pondan,” says de Silva.
While he and Zhafir have played drag characters in theatre, it is a first for Chan. It’s been an educational and immersive experience, the actor says: “To me, it is an art form today. I see it as an appreciation of beauty and empowerment, not just for a particular community.” Zhafir agrees, chiming in, “As actors, make-believe is part and parcel [of what we do].”
Both were handpicked by Hasham for their roles. Zhafir plays Ilya, who struggles with gender identity. Zhafir recognises the resonance of the role in the light of some real-life transgender figures who have faced public scrutiny. “It’s a challenge to portray it realistically. I don’t want to trivialise or offend anyone.” Zhafir trained as a dancer and features in the local sitcom Oh My English!.
Chan makes for an unlikely drag queen, with his tall, muscular build and distinctly husky voice. But perhaps that is what makes him ideal for the role of the conflicted Bryan, who is still in denial and very much affected by the perception of society.
All three went through “boot camp”, including make-up tutorials and shopping in the Chow Kit area, as part of the persona-building process. Of course, learning to walk in heels was one of the key lessons. They admit that there is something about putting on a pair of heels that completes the transformation.
“It really just gives you a lift,” says Chan. De Silva quips, “That’s because he’s got the most expensive pair, made of leather, because of the size of his feet. Zhafir’s and mine are from Sungei Wang, and when our costume designer said she was so happy about finding a bargain, we said, ‘yes, it felt like it too’.”
On a more serious note, the actors are aware that they are not so much putting on a drag show themselves as stepping into the shoes of those who are drag performers. It is a fine line they are careful not to cross — caricaturing or mocking those who find deep comfort and a sense of identity in cross-dressing.
De Silva says Men in Heels is an amalgamation of their stories, alongside some of his own personal experiences. “For a lot of drag performers, it is a cathartic experience. I can relate in a way. I remember in Form 1 or 2, I was always that outcast in school. There would be this one girl in school whom I would admire, or adore, like ‘she is so beautiful, a goddess’… But it’s a different kind of appreciation. There was some envy as well,” he recalls. The experience makes its way into one of the scenes, along with other personal defining moments.
At heart, the writer says it is a show about love. “We are motivated by one goal — to showcase the beauty that is womanhood. The three characters each draw strength from women in different ways, even with the hurt they have encountered at their hands, or the solace they have found in them.”
That said, it is also about taking a stand and staying true to oneself, and doing it in the most fantastical, extravagant way possible, complete with wind machine and pop anthems.
'Men in Heels' is on until March 11 at Pentas 2, klpac, Jalan Stratchan, KL. Tickets, RM55 and RM100; call 03 4047 9000 to purchase. This article first appeared on Feb 26, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.