In the programme notes Shanon says that one of the starting points for the play was the news that a mak nyah (transvestite) had been found brutally murdered and dumped in a monsoon drain, and nobody came to claim the body:
... no family, no friends, no anybody. nobody at all seemed to care that a mak nyah had been killed. Simply because of what she was - abnormal, a misfit, an aberration.This story connected with Shanon's memories of his school life in Kedah, and a memorable incident of a visit from a police officer who told the boys at assembly that they were absolutely forbidden to visit the sex workers who hung out at the railway station :
Apparently an adventurous hostel border had been clobbered with the stiletto of one of the mak nyah sex workers because he had refused to remunerate her for services rendered.After a Mak Nyah sex worker is found beaten to death near the railway station in the play, the administration of a nearby boys boarding school decide to take action - a sort of reeducation camp is planned for all the boys who are a bit ... effeminate, in order to toughen them up so they don't, presumably, become mak nyahs themselves.
(This kind of round of 'em up and make long speeches about morality at 'em for hours and hours to make sure they behave exactly as we want 'em is a fairly common here. Even judges get subjected to them. Blaming victims is pretty common too.)
Having taught for three and a half years in a boys boarding school very like the one depicted in the play, I felt that Shanon's depiction of the school and teachers was very good indeed - these were convincing characters, coming to terms with their own sexuality, getting bullied, coping with personal problems, making and falling out of friendships and love. And this was a completely believable scenario.
Amerul Affendi and Zahril Adzim played senior prefects Chep and Burn, and Ryan Lee Baskaran and Nick Davis as Asif and William, the younger boys who become prefects were very good indeed. But there wasn't a single weak point in the casting.
The murdered sex worker, played by Dara Othman has no identity when the play opens, but gradually assumes a voice, and then name (Aiswarya Roberts - for a couple of very famous actresses), and then a form, becoming in the end a fully-fleshed and endearing character.
The Air Con of the title, incidentally, is a play on the word airconditioning (some units of which are being fixed in the prefects room by local contractor, Ah Kok, a character who adds humour and counterpoint to the play) and also a certain sexual practice which will probably now lead to a local shortage of Hacks.
"Did you enjoy the play?" someone asked me afterwards. Enjoy, I'm not sure is the right word. sure parts of it were very funny and I laughed along with the rest of the audience. But I also came away feeling quite traumatised. It is a powerful play and my emotions took a bit of a battering.
Sadly the run was all too short, but I do hope it gets staged again. and now that Shanon has found his feet as a playwright, he continues to take a little time out from being a famous pop star.
Congrats to all the FIRSTWoRKS crew, especially Jo, Suzie and Zalfian.
(More about the play on The Star website.)