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Theatre review: Faghag seeks to reclaim a controversial term with joy

This is the second iteration of the Wild Rice production, which was first performed at the Singapore Theatre Festival in 2018.

Faghag

Wild Rice
Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ Wild Rice, Saturday (July 3)

Joy is hard to find in today’s pandemic circumstances, and there is a particular joy in actress Pam Oei prancing about onstage, dressed as a unicorn, while iridescent bubbles cascade from on high.

Then an expression of weariness crosses her face and she begins taking the costume off.

The play follows Oei’s journey as a “fag hag”, a term she defines as a woman who surrounds herself, wittingly or not, with gay male friends.

From coaxing boyfriends out of the closet to becoming the Countdown Queen of Pink Dot, the annual LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, queer and others) gathering, she charts how her life has been closely intertwined with the gay community.

This is the second iteration of Faghag, which was first performed at the Singapore Theatre Festival in 2018.

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The show, directed by Ivan Heng, has had a tortuous path to being restaged, postponed twice due to construction delays and Covid-19 restrictions.

It fits naturally on the Wild Rice thrust stage, where Oei performs with flamboyant relish before a huge circular screen that at times lights up as a literal pink dot.

She is accompanied by composer Julian Wong on piano, while dancer Gino Babagay doubles up as her dresser.

Faghag

Pam Oei (right) with composer Julian Wong in Faghag by Wild Rice at the Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ Wild Rice.

In between uproarious sketches, she belts her heart out, whether it is the powerhouse anthem I Am What I Am from musical La Cage Aux Folles or a Beatles-inspired satire on conversion therapy.

To stage a show with a title like Faghag is, at the very least, highly politically incorrect.

Both halves of the term have a history as derogatory slurs and so the show must chart a precarious route between the Scylla of cancel culture and the Charybdis of conservative outrage.

The script goes to great lengths to position its use of the term – and other similar slurs – as an act of reclamation. Whether this succeeds is best judged on an individual basis. But what is often missing from fractious debates on identity politics is context, which the play supplies in spades.

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It serves as a crash course on the history of LGBTQ+ activism in Singapore in the 2000s, including the original 2007 parliamentary petition to repeal Section 377A of the penal code, which criminalises consensual sex between male adults.

Oei, Heng and Alan Seah, co-owner of the now-defunct gay club Happy, delivered the 400-page open letter with 8,120 signatories to the Istana.

Some may take issue with the way Oei centres herself in the narrative. One scene focuses on the difficult birth of her son, which is poignantly performed but sits slightly incongruously with the rest of the work.

Yet it is clear that this production comes from a deep well of love.

Oei speaks movingly of attending weddings when the couple’s own parents would not. She mourns a friend lost to drugs.

In a moment of lovely circularity, she reveals that she was the second person whom her accompanist Wong came out to, because she made him feel “safe”.

She models a form of allyship, how one can take on the burdens of a prejudice that one will never experience oneself and bridge the gap with the wider community.

Book it/Faghag

Where: Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ Wild Rice, Level 4 Funan Mall, 107 North Bridge Road

When: Till July 25, 7.30pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays), 3pm (Saturdays), 2 and 6pm (Sundays)

Admission: From $40 via Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Info: Rated R18; pre-event testing (PET) is required and will be covered by Wild Rice. For more information, go to Wild Rice’s website. To donate to The Wild PET Kitty fund, go here.

This article was originally published in The Straits Times.

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