To say that Asian Boys Vol 1 is camp would be stating the obvious. The play is inundated with campy tropes – the opening scene after a cryptic, mythological prologue takes place backstage of a drag beauty pageant. The women are heavily and beautifully made up, complete with geographical names with dirty double meaning. Agnes, the goddess daughter of Indra, is the only biological female when she stumbles into the group. Dazzled by their beauty and eager to learn the ways of poise and grace from them, she is shocked when she realises they were born male.
Sexuality is infrangibly linked to gender studies, possibly because our judgements of sexuality are so linked to the physicality that we see on the exterior. Dreamplay is, after all, part of the trilogy titled ‘Asian Boys’; the fact that Agnes is a goddess and all the other cast members play biologically male characters means that the human biological female is a non-entity in this play in particular. But that is merely an invitation to step into the imagination of being a gay man in Singapore.
The camp only continues – the rainbow, as a nod to the Nordic bifrost, functions as the bridge between time and space. Boy is drawn to Agnes’ tiara and is deceived, Sun Wukong style, into wearing a head-constricting device that allows Agnes to control him. His ‘magic staff’ is a gloriously thick yet ordinarily fleshy dildo – which, in the world of the Monkey King, honestly should grow and lengthen every time he blows on it. And every time they travel, they sing a verse and chorus of A Whole New World.
Perhaps it’s just as well that the play doesn’t even take itself seriously – which is a good thing, because anything that takes itself seriously ends up being far too self-absorbed. Director Ivan Heng has said in this run of Dreamplay that it is the first important queer play in Singapore that paved the way for the opening up of liberal sentiment, at least in theatre in Singapore. To have achieved this in 2000, Dreamplay would have had to simultaneously conform to the expectations of the MDA’s censors, while attempting to see just how far out the envelope could be pushed. The ability to laugh at itself and its audience is the well-used trick of satire to push through a message that may be seen as unacceptably subversive.
So what is this message? The meat of Dreamplay lies in Agnes’ attempts to save gay men from themselves. Boy is recruited into her mission, seemingly without her figuring out that he too is as gay as they come, and together they travel back and forth Singapore’s history in an attempt to find the source of divergence. In the first act, they go first to an unnamed bar in Tanjong Pagar, where the politics of body and race play out in the hidden corners of the dance floor. They travel back to the founding of Singapore, where the loneliness of a gay coolie driven out of his village meets the loneliness of a straight-but-possibly-bi coolie who yearns to return home and start a family. Both times, Agnes interferes to restore the heteronormative status quo. But in each, we are left wondering whether the men have found true happiness. Did the awe of religion, in her multi-faceted forms as Guanyin, Saraswati, a melodramatic Malay-Muslim mother in a primetime TV slot help guide them, or did they spin out into further confusion? The longing in the look that the two coolies exchange after being married to samsui women suggest otherwise.
In the second act, Agnes’ compassion develops into sympathy for the men’s situations. Her attempts to rewind and undo the death of either man in the persecution of ‘perversion’ during the time of the Japanese Occupation ultimately fail. Tragedy is not averted, mostly because Boy warns that this will stop neither of them from being a martyr to homosexuals of the future. But the fear of the times is contrasted with the tenderness in the scene; with the calmness of men who live from day to day, they allow themselves a moment to lie on the floor and stare at the stars head-to-head with one another. “Why didn’t you kiss me, even though my hand was already on your shoulder?” “I wanted you to say yes. Every yes is an answer to a question I’ve been asking myself my whole life: why am I this way?”
Why am I this way? The repeated depictions of loneliness and the shallowness of a gay culture that prizes a certain body type and a certain race beg this question over and over again. Yellow is the colour of Grindr, the latest incarnation of gay IRC chat, where the insecurities of men desperate for love have them scrambling and breaking their hearts over the shreds of what passes for intimacy. Boy is upset at Agnes when he finds that his time with the goddess has accelerated his aging process, but he accepts it with a resignation that suggests that he too knows his appeal to other gay men only lasts as long as he remains young and nubile. And at its heart, Dreamplay is a walk downward into the fundamental cracks of the easy gay stereotypes we have come to rely on – the experimenting twink, the gym bunny, the old paedophile – in order to see that the ‘gay agenda’ is not so complicated; after all, its obsession with love and acceptance consumes us all.