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Review: Mothers at the Edge

August 11, 2006

Mothers at the Edge

Suchen Christine Lim

Theatreworks 72-13  Mohammad Sultan Road

Suchen Christine Lim sits at her desk. Around her chairs have been arranged in a semi-circle. Gently she is prompted – the show’s about to start. She gets up and sits in front of the desk, and tells the audience that she’s going to tell them a story, like the old story-tellers in Chinatown – except that she won’t be passing around a coin-box for her fees.

And tell a story she does – she tells two, in fact. The first, Morning After, told from the perspective of a woman whose mother is complaining that her son (the woman’s brother) has decided to marry someone who already has two children from a previous marriage, and whose son David has just recently come out to her. The second, Two Mothers, told from the perspective of a woman who was adopted by two mah-jies (in olden Singapore, maids in a household) who have decided to live together.

The stories work because the atmosphere is so intimate. The narrative voice works actively with Lim’s voice to draw you in, as do Lim’s eyes – twinkly, deeply crinkled with age and wisdom, sparkly with all sorts of mischief. She modulates soothingly, her voice dipping there, only to rise again, full of power. The audience hushes, and listens attentively. She really is the story-teller from old Chinatown, a consummate performer. At the end of it you really do believe that she’s a woman whose son has come out to her, whose brother has decided to marry another woman with two kids, and who has been raised by two women (even though the two short stories are not interconnected). It took me a while to realise that these stories were fictional.

Such is Lim’s magic. She doesn’t tell you ‘give gays more rights!’, even though this is a session organised for Singapore’s gay pride month. Instead, she shows you a lovely vignette, a tantalising reminder that gay men and women are members of families too – in one story she is mother to one, in the next she is daughter to two. And never does she lose sight of the intensely personal – what the characters are feeling, how conflicted they are. what makes them human. These stories are not quite original in plot. What makes them original is the way they are told, with a certain dignity and pathos that pricks to the quick.

More memorable was the second story, Two Mothers. Raised by a same-sex couple (one hesitates to call them lesbian, since the ideological concept of lesbianism is a relatively recent invention, and Lim realises this herself), two mah-jies who live together in a sort of familial bliss, the narrator encounters another when she goes to  secondary school and is invited to tea with her classmates’ parents, both teachers, both female, one Chinese, one Indian. They have, together, adopted two children, one Chinese, one Indian. ‘Some families are born, other families are made,’ says Ms Nazareth, the Indian teacher in a lovely and humorous turn of phrase, ‘others are cooked. We selected our own ingredients.’ A minister enunciates his concept of what a family is: ‘a man, his wife, and their children.’ Her classmate and daughter of the teachers asks, child-like, about families with a grandmother, an unmarried uncle and grandchildren, all linked by a daughter/sister/mother (respectively) who has passed away – are they a family too? When the narrator later grows up and, like Lim, has is a Fellow at the University of Iowa, she meets a lesbian couple who have two children, who are half-sisters – they have the same father, a close friend of the couple. She, denies the existence of her parents for the third time (first as a kid, then as a teenager, now as an adult), compares herself to St Peter before the cock crowed. Now, as she finally comes to terms and enunciates her deep love and respect for her parents, she, like St Peter, gains a freedom and a joy so deep. It is a fitting ending – like her parents who give offerings to the gods when she graduates with a Ba(Hons), she now devotes paper offerings to her parents for their love and care.

Morning After was slightly less memorable, since the context was stock – a mother’s feelings after her son has come out to her. But Lim does an admirable job of portraying it. Juxtaposing her own son’s coming out with her brother telling her mother that he is going to marry a woman who already has two children, Lim shows the difference between the narrator and her mother – the narrator doesn’t wail and moan, and doesn’t wallow in self pity. With delicious cruelty and hard-handedness, the narrator decides to cut her mother’s complaining short by telling the mother that her grandson is gay. You get the sense that this is a real, flawed, and all-too-human being, struggling to come to terms with her son’s identity.

Which, all in all, makes for an enjoyable evening. The stories themselves are not original – but the storytelling is, and Lim’s light, lovely touch, which reminds us that gay people have a family, a history, and therefore a place in society, will be read with enjoyment not only by gay men and women, and not only by Singaporeans, and not only now, but in the future too, when the politics has faded and all that remains is the resonance of the text.

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