An Old Scare and New Mayhem | Sunday Observer

An Old Scare and New Mayhem

The 21st century Sri Lankan urban socio-political-cultural enigmatic ‘non-myth’ phenomenon known as the ‘Grease Yaka’ which can be translated to English as either ‘grease demon’ or ‘grease devil’ found its spot of monumentalisation through the dramatic arts, initially, when Anandadrama in collaboration with Stages Theatre Group put on the boards ‘Grease Yaka’ in August 2014. I reviewed that play in the August 31, 2014 issue of the Sunday Observer. And on August 17 this year, yours truly sat under the gentle darkness of the Wendt occupying seat E-10 as an observant guest of Anandadrama to review ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ on its opening night.

Not a prequel or a sequel to ‘Grease Yaka’, this ‘return’ is not really a franchise either, as far as I could discern. Written and directed by Nishantha de Silva and Rajitha Hettiarachchi ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ brought out on a larger scale the concept of how fear becomes a tool for divisive politics. The play is not fixed on unfolding a conventional ‘story’ per se, but rather builds on scenarios of several groups of characters that together weave a larger picture of how the theme and message can be digested.

Suspicion

When people are made to turn on one another suspecting every second person to be the possible black grease daubed sexual predator that haunts neighbourhoods at night, what brews up is an unreal, symbolically applicable, fear of dark skin complexion. This is quite a statement on how human nature makes outward physical appearance a primary basis for judgement over a person. In ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ darkness of complexion reaches dizzy heights of divisiveness that become the basis for minority and majority identities in society.

And needless to say, two ‘leaders’ of the people as their ‘representatives’ step up to the platform to fight for the cause of their respective constituted groups. It is thus a case of a struggle between the dark complexioned minority and the fairer complexioned majority. As the leader of the fairer toned majority Charith Dissanayake, and Nadun Dissanayake as leader of the dark skinned minority, delivered laudable performances.

The play also looks at how intensely mediatised the present Sri Lankan society is with not only mainstream media like TV commanding the public’s time and attention but also social media and how destructive a tool it can be. It is in a way a theatrical thesis on the toxicity of media in a society that is believed to be ‘democratised’.

Fear mongering, fear psychosis and paranoia that lead to civil unrest are shown as the effects of the ‘grease yaka scare’.

And opportunistic politicians are needless to say poised to take up the mantle to fight for the causes of the oppressed minority, as well as the majority that asserts a right to pre-emptive measures of self protection, a sort of ‘precautionism’ if one may suggest such a term.

There is in that sense nothing extraordinarily new in the bones of the politics that are dissected through this play. But, it is more the meat and skin that provides the entertainment and food for thought.

A far more tidier script than Anandadrama’s ‘Picket Republic’ (which I reviewed in this year’s January 21 issue of the Sunday Observer) with much better cohesion as a performance with clearer focus and intention as to what needs to be conveyed and how, one of the main merits of ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ is that as an original work of Sri Lankan theatre it adds to the body of bilingual theatre that is very much a growing aspect of 21st century Sri Lankan theatre.

Anandadrama with its track record in theatre has become a frontrunner in providing good quality Sinhala-English bilingual theatre reflective of the ‘lingual reality’ of urban Sri Lanka. Adopting a bilingual approach to a script doesn’t mean merely peppering English dialogue with a bit of Sinhala thrown in for laughs and exoticness.

Bilingualism

Although a script that has characters that speak the two languages separately can also present technically speaking, a ‘bilingual play’, the more accomplished level of bilingualism in theatre would be where the script presents believable conversation in which the two languages coalesce without a breakdown of grammatical structures in the course of switching from one language to the other. In that regard ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ accomplishes Sinhala-English bilingual theatre beautifully. It shows to a great degree the identities of class and language in present day Sri Lanka.

There are character groups that are presented as monolinguals like a set of officers in a government department whose dialogue is exclusively in Sinhala and upper class affluent folks like the characters portrayed by Chalana Wijesuriya and Tasmin Anthonisz whose dialogue states their first language as English with no material use of Sinhala. And then, there are characters who are presented as quite natural bilinguals who switch between Sinhala and English effortlessly like the mother and daughter character duo portrayed by Dmitri Gunathilleke and Dinoo Wickramage respectively. Given the merits of the language factor in ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ I would unhesitatingly say this play’s script is certainly worthy of academic study in Departments of English in Sri Lankan universities with respect to the subject of bilingualism.

Language as demarcations of class strata and skin colour as the distinction between good and evil all added up to create quite a rambunctious performance that was entertainingly executed.

There were, however, a few marginally detectable hiccups in this opening night performance. One was in the scene where people were shown watching television.

At some instances the characters that would rise from behind a large box shaped prop and appear as different types of people on different types of TV shows ranging from the news, to melodramatic teledramas, to a cookery show, were not optimally timed in switching to avoid overlaps, where one party of characters on a channel must exit the ‘frame’ by fully disappearing behind the prop, before the next set of characters rise to depict what’s on another channel.

Although there were no visible signs of opening night jitters among the numerous visages that populated the stage that evening, there was a slight fumble in dialogue by the young male actor in a green t-shirt and grey trousers who played a government servant, when emphatically trying to enforce an officially sanctioned ‘colour bar’ on the use of toilets/washrooms.

I would say, overall the acting was quite commendable in this performance made up of both experienced actors as well as relative newcomers that wove a fabric of performance that appeared balanced in respect of the acting talent factor.

It must also be noted that productions as these must be applauded for the opportunity platform they provide for aspiring thespians whose abilities are showcased to theatregoers in Colombo.

Compared to ‘Grease Yaka’ ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ had less ‘spectacularity’, when looking at how in this work stagecraft wasn’t designed to show the heights of the proscenium space being utilised for more impressiveness to be projected to the viewer as was seen in ‘Grease Yaka’. Yet, the design applied to this play worked and worked well. Grease Yaka Returns was a good example of optimal functional minimalism in stagecraft.

The opening night’s show ended with Dimitri Gunathilleke, as the mother who is traumatised by the fact that her daughter isn’t fair in complexion and seeks medical help, applying an ointment forcibly on her daughter who is horizontally laid out and bound. The crux of that scene which to my understanding suggested perceptions and beliefs of the ‘parental generation’ are (en)forced on the younger generation and appears to say that we are creations of the generation who came before us and are bound to be ‘coloured’ by their perceptions.

Recurring history

All the ‘evil’ we see in our midst after all do in truth spring out from our own midst. And I am reminded at this point of a line from the TV serial ‘The Last Kingdom’ where the character of King Alfred of Wessex says –“A country is its history, the sum total of its stories. We are what our fathers made us.” Perhaps, there is a reflection of that idea in the core of what ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ hopes to convey to Sri Lankan audiences? The enigmatic urban phenomenon called the Grease Yaka is a story that forms part of our recent history.

Thinking on the matter of how stories shape our outlooks I cannot help but recall this enchanting line from Michael Ondaatje’s novel ‘Divisadero’ –“We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.” In that respect seeing as how the core theme of how duplicitous, divisive politics is tearing apart an island nation is somewhat thematically recurrent in some of the pasts of Anandadrama, one does hope its playwrights will endeavour to explore some new themes and subjects through their prowess for original Sri Lankan theatre.

Having watched a successful opening night of ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ this reviewer did extend a hearty standing ovation at the end of the curtain call, and looks forward to what is in store for theatregoers in the future from Anandadrama.

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