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Communities of Imagination

Contemporary Southeast Asian Theatres

Catherine Diamond

Publication Year: 2012

Asian theatre is usually studied from the perspective of the major traditions of China, Japan, India, and Indonesia. Now, in this wide-ranging look at the contemporary theatre scene in Southeast Asia, Catherine Diamond shows that performance in some of the lesser known theatre traditions offers a vivid and fascinating picture of the rapidly changing societies in the region. Diamond examines how traditional, modern, and contemporary dramatic works, with their interconnected styles, stories, and ideas, are being presented for local audiences. She not only places performances in their historical and cultural contexts, but also connects them to the social, political, linguistic, and religious movements of the last two decades.

Each chapter addresses theatre in a different country and highlights performances exhibiting the unique conditions and concerns of a particular place and time. Most performances revolve in some manner around “contemporary modernity,” questioning what it means—for good or ill—to be a part of the globalized world. In addition, chapters are grouped by three general and overlapping themes. The first, which includes Thailand, Vietnam, and Bali, is defined by the increased participation of women in the performing arts—not only as performers, but also as playwrights and directors. Cambodia, Singapore, and Myanmar are linked by a shared concern with the effects of censorship on theatre production. A third group, the Philippines, Laos, and Malaysia, is characterized by their focus on nationalism: theatres are either contributing to official versions of historical and political events or creating alternative narratives that challenge those interpretations.

Communities of Imagination shows the many influences of the past and how it continues to affect cultural perceptions. It addresses major trends, suggesting why they have developed and why they are popular with the public. It also underscores how theatre continues to attract new practitioners and reflect the changing aspirations and anxieties of societies in immediate and provocative ways even as it is being marginalized by television, film, and the internet. The book will be of interest to students and scholars of theatre and performance, Asian literature, Southeast Asian studies, cultural studies, and gender studies. Travelers who view attending local performances as important to their experience abroad will find it an essential reference to theatres of the region.

19 illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. c-iv


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pp. v-vi

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. vii-x

When I decided to investigate the contemporary theatres of Southeast Asia, I wrote to James R. Brandon, author of Theatre in Southeast Asia (1967), asking the best way to locate troupes and dramatists. “Ask the taxi drivers,” was his reply. I followed the spirit of his advice by asking everyone. To find performances, so much still depends on word of mouth and just happening to be in the right place at the right time. Subject...

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pp. 1-24

The small auditorium is hushed, no one moves, no one breathes as all eyes are intent upon the two figures on the bare raised platform, one of whom cradles the other. A moment before, the two elderly exiles from Ho Chi Minh City had been singing and romping at their first experience of snow, when suddenly the cai luong performer slumped into the arms of his friend. For two hours they had been entertaining the spectators with songs, witticisms, memories...

Part I The Growing Impact of Women

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Chapter 1. Mae Naak and Phra Ram: Keeping Company on the Contemporary Thai Stage

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pp. 27-59

In the On Nut suburb of Bangkok, behind the large Buddhist temple complex of Wat Mahabute, is a small dark shrine. Fortune-tellers and vendors, selling everything from cold drinks to turtles and birds that one can buy and set free to obtain merit, congregate in its courtyard. Beneath tall broad takien trees wrapped in multicolored ribbons by devotees, the jerry-built shrine has walls lined with glass cases filled with women’s traditional dresses. Offerings of dolls...

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Chapter 2. Staging the Doi Moi Generation and the Treasures of Vietnamese Tradition

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pp. 60-90

Drama begins on the back of Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc’s motorcycle as she heads directly into oncoming traffic with the sangfroid of a Ho Chi Minh City native. Although Vietnam has one of the highest motorcycle fatality rates per capita in the world, it is only by motorcycle that the actor-playwright-director can zip around the city to make her daily dozen consultations, rehearsals, and performances. Her schedule is particularly frenzied during Tet, the Lunar New Year...

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Chapter 3. Looking Within: The Balinese Rwa Bhineda and Readjusting Complementary Opposites

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pp. 91-118

The outdoor performance of Oedipus Rex was not out of place on the Indonesian island of Bali in 2004.1 The tragedy’s rituals undertaken to purge Thebes of the plague, the proud king taunted by a blind fortune-teller, and the revelation of coincidences that expose his guilt had resonance for the local audience after the terrorist bombing in 2002. When confronted with disease, crop failure, and...

Part II Censorship and Global Economics

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Chapter 4. Cambodia’s Artistic Renaissance or a New Culture of Dependency?

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pp. 121-150

Before 2006 if you walked straight up Phnom Penh’s Monivong Boulevard past the art deco Psar Thmei (Central Market) on the right and Boeng Kak lake on the left, you could easily find the dilapidated but charming “north campus” of the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA). In 1958 the university was formally known as École Nationale du Théâtre, or Sala Cheat Phneak Lakhaoun Niyeay (The National School of Spoken Drama). In 1965 it became RUFA when...

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Chapter 5. Singapore’s Cosmopolitan Identity and Its Theatrical Shadow

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pp. 151-183

In the Bugis Junction Shopping Centre, located in Singapore’s once famous red-light district, is a fountain. Nothing is visible but concentric holes in the ground from which spurt an amazing array of water formations—from leapfrogging droplets to ten-meter high columns; interlocking arches to hiccupping geysers. Its antics are the best free show in town. It is irresistible to children...

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Chapter 6. Dancing with the Censors: Burmese Performing Arts Keep Time

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pp. 184-212

Opening night had been postponed; spectators, who had to register their names at the gate, were kindly invited to return the following night for the Yangon premiere of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (2009). Directed and adapted by Paris-based Burmese Nyan Lin Htet, director of the Theatre of the Disturbed, and Thai-American Ruth Ponstaphone, the performance was the culmination of Ponstaphone’s two-week butoh workshop at the Alliance Française. Later...

Part III Toward a National Culture

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Chapter 7. The Philippine Theatre’s Quest for a Hero(ine)

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pp. 215-245

When it was announced that the air conditioner had broken down in Tanghalang Huseng Batute at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) just before a performance of Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa’s La Chunga (1994), no one knew just how hot and sultry it was going to get in the small black box theatre. While the Philippines shares several affinities with Latin American countries besides tropical heat—hundreds of years of Spanish colonization...

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Chapter 8. From Fa Ngoum to Hip-Hop Boom: The Faces of Lao Performance

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pp. 246-275

In January 2003, a grand ceremony marked the 650th anniversary of the founding of Lan Xang with the unveiling of King Fa Ngoum’s statue in Vientiane, the capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR; Laos): “The statue of King Fa Ngoum is not only meant to be a symbol for the nation but also to inspire courage among Lao people of all ethnic groups for national development....

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Chapter 9. Durians, Diversity, and Independence: The Malaysian Theatre Stages Its Multiethnic Heritage

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pp. 276-308

Showing him standing in front of the Malaysian flag, singing the national anthem interspersed with Mandarin and Hokkien rap about the Malaysian police, government officials, and Malay-Chinese relations and accompanied by a montage of stereotypical images of the country, Wee Meng Chee’s “Negarakuku” caused an uproar when it appeared on YouTube in July 2007. Perhaps because sensitivities were heightened with the approach of the fiftieth...

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pp. 309-330

The nation-states of Southeast Asia, emerging from the colonial empires of Europe and America, and then wartime occupation by Japan, and impacted once again by their proximity to the growing power of China, the Middle East, and India, are the site of both superficial adaptations of cultural difference, and a profound layering of historical fusions. The theatres that stem from such crossfertilization reveal their own as well as their societies’ conscious applications and...


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pp. 331-358


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pp. 359-376


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pp. 377-bc

E-ISBN-13: 9780824865757
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824835842

Publication Year: 2012