A Review on Avant Theatre's "AKKA"

4 Shows ! 4 Standing Ovations! A key milestone in  Singapore Tamil Theatre. A play that will be spoken about for years to come. The last time I was this entertained  at a Tamil theatre production was back in 2007 when Karthikeyan Somasundaram  performed the most outrageous magical surprise appearance during a Pokiri Pongal dance performance. It was just unbelievable. [Alright, Back to Akka].

The transgenders did a brilliant job as theatre débutantes. I especially loved Sandhya's performance. Their performance may not have been perfect. But all of that did not affect me. To me, this play was different. It was more than playing your character and delivering your lines to perfection. This, to me, was a social revolution.

The opening 5 minutes was telling. The audience were literally jolted off the in the  scene between Vijay (played by Selvasegar) and one of the transgenders. Most of us live within our self-imposed comfort zones. We do our best to ignore what we are not comfortable with. This journey with Avant's Akka was not going to be easy. This time, Avant had decided to (nearly) bare it all.

Akka had 2 linear plotlines which merged at the intense climax scene.  The first involved a group of transgenders, who have resorted to prostitution, one of whom, Kamini, who falls in love with a divorcee, and manages to leave the flesh trade to lead a life she desires. She even adopts a boy to complete their family.

The second being, 2 transgender dancers, Shilpa (played by Haaran) and Amara (played by Ramaraj) who work in a ailing club, decide to take over the management upon hearing about their boss's plan to shut it down and move to another country. Shilpa and Amara decide to hire new dancers and plan for the club's new opening.
The first plotline had real transgenders acting in different roles. Whereas, the second plotline involved young Indian males who were donning transgender characters.
I was one of those who stood up to applaud at the end of the drama. The climax did move me enough for me to wipe my face discreetly a few times. But it went downhill from that. As I walked out from the School of the Arts, the questions started forming in mind. Questions to which, I had expected the play to answer. This was an opportunity where 6 transgenders from the Indian community had stepped forward to tell us their story. I could not help but feel that this opportunity was wasted for the sake of sensationalism and entertainment.
drag boys during rehearsals

Shilpa, together with Amara, along with the bevy of beauties (the Drag Boys played by Sarvesh, Sahran, Suren, Krishna) were an absolute joy to watch. I must admit that Sarvesh looked every bit a Russian bombshell in his blonde wig. The dance performance was exquisite. I suppose this was necessary to balance the tragedy in Kamini's plotline. Krishna was another one that stunned me. His elegance and grace was captivating.
They synopsis promised a play interwoven with the various stages of becoming a transgender. It was to remind us that every human deserves to be respected.

This was what I took away. They belong to a closely knit community, where they look out for each other. They, too, like every person have dreams and aspirations. But what stood out was that almost every transgender regardless of their choice of profession love sex. The scene with Shilpa and Amara with Sujay was absolutely unnecessary. So was the short dance sequence between a prostitute and her client, which ended up with the unhooking of her bra strap.
Do not mistake me for one who is not able to appreciate such bold expressions. I would have loved it if it had meaning or served any purpose. This had  the potential to be much greater. The fact that transgenders face much ridicule from mainstream society and then a significant number have resorted to prostitution is known to most. Words like "bapok", "pondan", "9", "pottai" are probably the most common words a transgender would have heard in her life.  That was communicated across effectively.
Perhaps there would not have been disappointment if this was staged by any other group. With Avant, the bar is set high. With G.Selva at the helm, mediocrity is not an option.

Personally,  I wanted to know about what kick-starts the transformation. Is a transgender a woman born into a male's physical body or was it a choice? What influenced that choice? This could have tackled effectively since the cast had transgenders from  early 20s til an elderly age. One would think that with media and internet, a young transgender would be well-informed about the life of a transgender as compared to one who made the change in the 20th century. Yet, what compels them to make the decision to part of a marginalised community?

Have you ever wondered why man, despite ridiculing transgenders, still choose to spend their most private moments with them? While all of us know what would happen between a prostitute and her client within 4 walls, perhaps more light could have been shed on the private conversations between the 2, instead of a dance?  Perhaps, this play could have played a bigger role to dispel stereotypes that have plaguing the transgender community.

The Brave Ladies who have stepped forward. Thank you Akkas !!!
Having said that, Avant's Akka remains a milestone. The fact that it was staged, by itself is and achievement for our community. The attempt has broken barriers. I can only hope that other theatre companies use Avant's monumental effort as a stepping stone to reach for greater heights.

Thinesh Kurunathan

[Note: This post is not meant to offend nor disrespect anyone. I have the greatest respect for Selva and Avant Theatre and will always be a fan.]

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