Tuesday, June 14, 2011, 00:00

Of the people, for the people


Of the people, for the people

Of the people, for the people

Of the people, for the people

In short, this Chinese independent theater group has emerged as a social and political critique, a cultural platform of diverse senses and sensibilities – all by its own right.

The other day Teater Koma performed Sie Jin Kwie Gets Framed at Graha Bhakti Budaya (the old theater hall) in central Jakarta for three weeks in March. The auditorium was full to the brim and the nearby parking lot was chock-a-block with cars. That speaks volume of its surging mass appeal.

All this would have been unimaginable during the long decades when everything Chinese was banned in the New Order era during Suharto’s regime from the 1960s through 1990s.

Teater Koma seeks to work through plays that portray the social-political situations and conditions in the country. Using satire as a weapon, it lampooned the government, ridiculed the people who run it, and also the systems. And as a consequence, they incurred the wrath of the establishment, and faced bans.

But Teater Koma remained unbound. It made sure there was at least one play a year. Sie Jin Kwie Gets Framed is their 122th production.

Recently, Teater Koma celebrated its 34th anniversary. Now it is preparing for a sequel of Sie Jin Kwie, a play it staged last year. It is an adaptation of a classic seventh-century script by Tio Keng Jian, a Yuan dynasty writer, and later edited by a Lo Koan Chung, a Ming dynasty writer.

The script was adapted by Nano Riantiarno, one of the founders of Teater Koma who also directed the play.

“As a Chinese descent, we have to thank the late president Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid) that we can see performances like this much freely. It feels like our dry soul is getting some showers. For decades we were cut off from our own culture. I read Sie Jin Kwie in comic forms when I was a little (child)”, says Julius Keke, an architect in Jakarta.

During the New Order era, Teater Koma staged another Chinese classic love story Sam Pek Eng Tay, but they adapted it into a musical. In Medan, they were banned in the late 80s, but fired with fierce determination they managed to carry on and perform it elsewhere 80 times during 16 years since it first staged in Jakarta with the same actors, musicians and director.

“Teater Koma is one of few alternatives that are available today to portray or be a mirror of a regime in power. Apart from their theatrical skills that are above average, Teater Koma is definitely capable of giving affordable entertainment as well as educating people to become more critical of those in power. It is also an oasis for a society thirsty of alternative entertainment,” says Eddy Satriya, an infrastructure economist working at the office of Coordinating Minister of Economy.

“What they get now is only very low-quality program from television with no logic. Therefore, not only that Teater Koma has to exist and be supported, but it needs to be ‘cloned’ more and faster (as well).”

In Sie Jin Kwie Kena Fitnah (which is Bahasa for Sie Jin Kwie Gets Framed), Teater Koma combined typical Chinese opera with potehi puppet, shadow puppet show, modern innovation puppet show, golek menak (red puppets) dance and wushu martial arts performance. We have to give credits to their creativity.

Sie Jin Kwie Gets Framed has an easy-to-follow story about wicked political trickery waged by a jealous royal family seeking revenge against the country’s hero Sie Jin Kwie. Although Budi Ros as the puppet master was very communicative, some people find certain monologues and conversations too boring in the more than four-hour show.

“I had high expectations, but I think it was not as good as the first installment,” Khairul Mahadi, a director at Jakarta International Expo says. “The combination of ‘wayang tavip’ (by puppet master M. Tavip) and musical theater was quite creative and original. The puppet master was very communicative – as Jennifer Lopez would said in American Idol – connected with the audiences. But the music was not colossal enough and overall the play did not make me cry or cringe.”

Architect Nusi Hariadi, who first went to see Opera Julini by Teater Koma in 1985, says: “I was very impressed by Opera Julini, but starting in the 90s, I feel the plays were all the same. I could not get the essence of the stories, so of course they were not memorable. Sorry, it was monotone. For example, it is different with Le Miserable or Phantom of the Opera. Those were long plays but I remember the stories and am willing to see them again and again. The songs in Le Miserable are not boring at all.”

Property developer Ridwanto Wiromartono doesn’t, however, agree. “I don’t feel that the play was long, maybe because I feel entertained by the jokes too. I’d definitely queue for the next installment of Sie Jin Kwie,” he says. “I am very impressed with the properties: steel horses, the smooth changing of sets, and the lighting.”

It takes a lot of determination to keep the theater going in Indonesia with limited funds, but Teater Koma manages to have a smooth regeneration of members. Up until its 34th year anniversary, they managed to recruit more than 10 generations. While some of its founders, like Salim Bungsu and Sari Madjid, still play in some roles, Riantiarno’s son Rangga already played the titular character, the hero in white Sie Jin Kwie. Teater Koma certainly brings some fresh air and give a flicker of hopes to Indonesia.

China Daily Asia Weekly on April 15, 2011, page 23