The third piece in this year’s all-virtual Ice Factory Festival, the Transit Ensemble’s Who’s There?, feels very much like a work in progress, with its structure and its intellectual work in place but perhaps not yet having found its artistic voice. Its ideals are laudable, as are its efforts to do something medium-specific with the digital space (though, like so many other pieces of the moment, it suffers more than a little from the impossibility of its actors interacting) and to make a virtue rather than an obstacle out of social–and geographical–distance. Simulcast in the three locations where the play is set–Singapore, Malaysia, and New York; each locale gets two 10 p.m. performances and two at 10 a.m.–the show is built on extensive research (the program contains a lengthy bibliography) and tries to give a crash course in the history of race relations and power structures in all three locales while also staging interactions and culture clashes, as well as interrogating intersectionality, activism, and even the audience (through a series of interactive instant polls about demographics and issues of racial justice, whose results are flashed on screen).
There’s a lot going on here, in other words, and in trying to present big ideas, directors Sim Yan Ying (who also performs) and Alvin Tan sometimes get stuck in them, without grounding them in a plausible envisioned world or in human characters. The characters too often come off as positions, not people, and in talking almost entirely about issues, they fail to come to life. They’re all so certain in their opinions–and their defenses–that we don’t really see the complexity and the messiness of engaging in any of the issues that matter so deeply to them.
The six performers play both approximations of themselves–performers 1 through 6, engaged in discussion relevant to the construction of the play–and characters connected through a loose web of interactions. Iyla (Camille Thomas), a Black American social media influencer, is invited to write a feature about the Malaysian Academy for the Arts, and comes into conflict with its assistant director, Amir (Ghafir Akbar), when she sees a traditional performance that uses blackface. Amir finds a DNA match and a cousin across the world in Jordan (Sean Devare), an American adoptee who never knew his own racial background, but who’s deeply suspicious of Malaysia’s Islamic culture. Jordan runs a podcast called “Grey Matters” that hosts interviews from around the world. Iyla is friends with Sharmila (Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai), a Malaysian labor activist of Indian descent. Sharmila gets into a social media war with YT (Sim Yan Ying “YY”), who’s emigrated from Singapore to the United States and become involved in racial justice activism in America without really grappling with her position of privilege at home as a member of the dominant Chinese minority. YT is in a sometime relationship with Adam (Neil Redfield), a white American who identifies as queer (though at the play’s outset, he’s only been sexually involved with women) and teaches art classes for HIV-positive Black and brown queer youths–and who went to high school with Iyla, whose brother is in his workshop (and whose work Adam may be exploiting).
The underlying web of human relations in a technologically linked world, showing how we’re all simultaneously one click apart, yet remain ignorant and blind to so much of what goes on in other cultures as well as our own, has potential. But the actual connections linking the characters start to feel like a schematic drawing, a flat map rather than a three-dimensional world. What is Iyla’s platform, and who is her audience, that she gets invited to Malaysia? Who is the Malaysian school trying to recruit? How did she become friends with a Singaporean activist–close enough to talk all the time, yet not close enough to know much about Sharmila’s family? What brought YT and Adam, who seem to have mostly contempt for each other, together in the first place? What brought YT to leave Singapore? Iyla and Sharmila, in particular, feel like mouthpieces for philosophy and argument, not friends, and Jordan, too, feels constructed for the arguments he espouses rather than the other way around. This is no discredit to the actors; Dorai and Redfield in particular bring relish to their portrayals.
The questions the piece asks are important: How do even the most “woke” and seemingly enlightened or “open-minded” people fall down on their principles when faced with the unfamiliar mores of a different culture? Whose perspective matters when different layers of power intersect–and who is more disempowered in a conflict between a Black American and a Malaysian government functionary? How does protest work in a more repressive state? And yet there’s little nuance in the way it explores them, for the most part, nor has it fully teased out the ways in which the different cultures depicted interact and reflect one another.
The piece is quick to mark Adam–the banker working with the “underprivileged” and getting famous off their work; the queer-identifying, straight-acting cis man; the guy who learns Chinese in a paternalistic attempt to bond with his adopted sister–as a hypocrite. It starts to do some of that investigation regarding YT, the oppressor at home and the oppressed here. But while all the characters are quick to criticize and pass judgment on one another’s motives and actions, and keenly aware of and articulate about the oppressive factors in their own cultures, there’s not yet a lot of looking within.