Preview: Boom

Image credit: Timothy Lim

Urban dislocation. Familial tensions. Talking corpses.

Uniting these elements is Boom, the first Southeast Asian play to be staged at the ADC. Set in Singapore in 2007, this play by Singaporean playwright Jean Tay tells the story of gangster turned property agent Boon, who has to convince his elderly mother to let their home go when it is slated for redevelopment. A parallel storyline follows idealistic civil servant Jeremiah, who discovers an ability to talk to corpses on a site visit to a cemetery under Singapore’s 15-year exhumation policy. In a city constantly destroying and rebuilding, the present and the past collide and confront.

Boom inevitably stands out in Cambridge’s theatre scene. It follows a recent trend in BME theatre, with predecessors including Teahouse, Fences, and Sizwe Bansi is Dead. As Boom’s publicist Jonathan Chan notes, these plays demonstrate how Anglophone narratives from around the world are being given more serious critical attention in theatre here.

As the first to be set in a Southeast Asian country, Boom is a further opportunity for representation. “Boom allows us to portray Asia beyond the lens of an exotic ‘othering’, but rather on our own terms,” Jonathan says. “It portrays Singapore beyond its stereotype of an ‘economic marvel’ to reveal a place destabilised by rapid development and urbanisation, often at the expense of memory, sentimentality, and a sense of belonging.”

This is why the production is so personal to the team behind it. With binary misconceptions of Singapore – and of contemporary Asia more generally – present even in Cambridge, Boom is an important glimpse into the real world so many of the University’s students come from. Producer Alyssa P’ng describes wanting to create a space for Southeast Asian creative expression and talent.

“We realised there was a dearth of recognition of this creative energy despite the sizeable Southeast Asian population within the Cambridge student body,” she says. “While the play explores the sense of dislocation induced by the passage of time, we feel it also explores the dislocation of space, an experience similar to that of international students as they manoeuvre a foreign landscape.”

Conceived even before the start of this academic year, the project has been a long process for the team. Alyssa notes how its progression even changed their own perceptions of home, how it highlighted new issues for them. While scouting for locations shoots for filming in Singapore, the team discovered that many of the old buildings they had in mind were being torn down or rebuilt. Like the characters in the play, they had to confront ephemerality in Singapore, and the prospect of having childhood memories eroded.

Alyssa adds, “It’s therefore incredibly exciting to be able to stage this play in a place like Cambridge, which prides itself on its historic significance and architectural preservation. The appearance of much of the town and many of the colleges has not changed for centuries, whereas Singapore is in a constant state of revival and redevelopment.”

Jonathan also asserts that the production is aligned with the university’s decolonise movement, with Boom’s discussion of Singapore’s colonial inheritance – one shared by many other Asian countries that have developed rapidly over the latter half of the 20th century. “The narrative of economic development, one long championed as an ideal by the Western world, often lacks nuance and fails to tell the stories of those it has left behind.

Boom provides an opportunity to re-examine this narrative that continues to be perpetuated, bearing in mind the human costs in the pursuit of a societal ideal.”

This does not mean, however, that non-Singaporeans will not be able to fully appreciate the play. Boom will aspire to capture a more universal sense of dislocation in the face of rapid development and globalisation. Despite its distinctly Singaporean narrative, the play will reflect broader anxieties about the human costs of development.

What is undeniable is the effort and passion behind the production. Original music, retro aesthetic, and innovative set aside, Boom is worth seeing for how personal and culturally significant it is. It hopes to be a facsimile of home, and to help recognise the creative talents of other minority or international communities.

“We’re excited to welcome the audience to a recreation of Singapore, a world that can feel completely unlike what we’re used to in Cambridge,” Alyssa concludes. “We’re excited for people to be introduced to the cultural habits and practices that are essential to conceptions of the Singaporean identity. We’re excited for people to see their own stories in the one we tell, stories of familial disagreement, forgetfulness, and material anxieties.”

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