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Singapore Fringe Festival 2019

Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore

Sharon Frese, Irfan Kasban, Ng Yi-Sheng (Singapore| UK)

Genre: Drama, Lecture

Venue: Centre 42, Singapore


Low Down

“This event is both a history lesson and a theatrical ritual. The creators commemorate the untold numbers of black men and women enslaved, indentured and expatriate who crossed the oceans into unknown territory. They draw strength from these tides, which Indian convicts called the “black water” in Hindi “kala pain”, or in Malay “ayer hitam”.”



Photo credit: Irfan Kasban

Drums play as we enter the performance space. It immediately evokes another world and it is Sharon Frese, playing the drums live – after a while they become slow, crisp and deliberate – then she is silent.

Frese is of British Afro-Caribbean descent and currently lives in Singapore. In this lecture performance she speaks about the influence of the African diaspora globally, historically and telescoping down to our present location, in Singapore. The increasing presence of a black population in Asia going back many years is evidenced by the substantial research and facts disseminated in this play by poet and playwright Ng Yi-Sheng, yet is not spoken or written about much or enough in daily life, literary, artistic or historical references.

Director Irfan Kasban, performer Frese and playwright Ng have created a fascinating and engrossing show that brings together their strengths. Based on a storytelling style of performance with gloriously effective, yet simple physical moments by Frese, the factual story starts chronologically.

Frese begins with a personal introduction addressing the audience directly telling us that she in “A cultural nomad…a black woman living in Singapore…” She is personable and joyously confident and sincere as we connect with her and what she has to say. She sits at the table, which has a few props such as a mirror, a bottle and behind her, on a large screen, images of migration patterns since the world began and photographs float on and off seamlessly. Frese brings history to life with her animated facial expressions and gestures and a genuine rapport with the audience as she includes everyone with her open face and eye contact. If only history had been taught like this when I was at school!

In this ninety minute show with no intermission Frese has good timing, a warm sense of humor and tells it like it is a few times when she breaks away from the script usually in disagreement. These moments are particularly effective and we would welcome more of these, or expansion of the current ones. For in these moments, Frese comes into her own and relishes the opportunity to give a different point of view, not only from her own experience as a black woman but also from her point of view of history, colonialism and slavery.

Frese uses several different accents in her performance and switches characters swiftly – one moment she is a West Indian woman and the next she is talking about Stamford Raffles. Controversy is everywhere and we learn about a black American butler named Fraser, how Africans and their descendants built a lot of the world and were responsible for digging, constructing and building many major towns and their infrastructure, including the Suez Canal.

Frese tells stories well through physical storytelling when she evokes characters with movement and infuses abstract movements into parts of the lecture performance. A particularly memorable part is when Frese told a story about forgetting. Other moments are beautifully visual, with shadows and patterns, chanting and water sounds. The flow and rhythm of the crafting, directing and performance are excellent and lift this piece to the next level.

This is fine work. The topics and events are real, therefore, run the gamut of emotion, distress, injustice, displacement, and prejudice. However, there are lighter moments based on interactivity and on positive and creative influences of black culture such as in sports and music.

Several times throughout the piece Frese is joined onstage by Ng, silently carrying bowls of water, entering from the audience and exiting to the side. This is an interesting device, which adds to the piece at times, yet it is also a little distracting at other times – but he owns the dance section!

The set comprises a few tiny chairs and tall wooden frames with a stool, chair and table centre stage, lit with warm focused lighting. Each set piece is made of wood, adding to the atmosphere and Frese wears two colourful regional costumes during the piece.

This is a well crafted, beautifully performed and sensitively directed show, it is direct, poignant, meaningful and not to be missed. Highly Recommended!