Cook a Pot of Curry by W!ld Rice (Spotlight on Alfian Sa’at)

W!ld Rice’s Alfian Sa’at – In The Spotlight features the premiere of his new play Cook A Pot Of Curry and the revival of two of his older plays: The Optic Trilogy, which has been translated and performed globally, and Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol 1, one of the first LGBT plays to be staged in Singapore. This is perhaps the first time a local playwright has had a whole theatre festival dedicated to their works: three plays and a series of workshops, public forums and free performances. This year, the limelight is on W!ld Rice’s resident playwright, Alfian Sa’at.

Alfian Bin Sa’at was born in Singapore in 1977. A Malay-Muslim of Minang, Javanese and Hakka descent, he is regularly referred to as his country’s “enfant terrible” and a ‘political playwright’. He is best known for his provocative works that span the genres of poetry, fiction and plays. His plays, written in Malay and English, have been performed in Singapore. They have also been translated into German and Swedish, and have been read and performed in London, Zurich, Stockholm, Berlin, Hamburg and Munich.

In The Spotlight marks the premier of Alfian Sa’at’s latest play – ‘Cook A Pot Of Curry’. The play focuses on the current ‘hot topic’ issue of foreigners. Its title is taken directly from the silent nationwide protest event that took place in August 2011 after the story of a Singapore Indian family, who had to cook curry less frequently after their new neighbours from China complained about the smell was reported in the press. The incident resulted in a myriad of responses on social media and Singaporeans were encouraged to ‘Cook A Pot Of Curry’ to show how intrinsic the dish was to the Singaporean identity. The play utilizes the ‘documentary-style’ of theatre, which was seen in Alfian Sa’at’s earlier play, Cooling Off Day.

Not being afraid to speak his mind, Alfian tackles immigration from different points of view. The play is based on testimonies gathered from a series of interviews and it explores the impact the influx of immigrants and foreign workers have had on the Singapore identity. Cook A Pot Of Curry is directed by Glen Goei, who was last seen directing W!ld Rice’s all-male version of The Importance of Being Earnest.

We caught up with playwright, Alfian Sa’At and director, Glen Goei to get their insights on ‘Cook A Pot Of Curry’:

Interview with Alfian Sa’at (Playwright)

W!ld Rice is dedicating an entire festival to your work – how does that make you feel?

It’s definitely a thrill. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to revisit some of my earlier works and share them with new audiences. Sometimes their premieres had very short runs, so it’s great that they’re going to be performed for a longer period this time round.

Why were these plays chosen for the festival?

I think the plays showcase a range of my playwriting styles. The premiere of ‘Cook A Pot of Curry’ continues with my current interest in documentary theatre, after ‘Cooling-Off Day’ last year. In this kind of theatre, the text is assembled from interview transcripts. ‘The Optic Trilogy’ is rooted in psychological realism, whereas ‘Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1’ is campy and fantastical, a wet dream in a cabaret.

You have a reputation as a political playwright who is not afraid to tackle ‘taboo’ subjects. Is that accurate and how does that make you feel?

I’ve never felt that the term ‘taboo’ can be universalized. What is considered ‘taboo’ is often the product of people’s own limits to what can be portrayed or discussed, and sometimes they are in positions of influence (such as the state or the media) to impose these limits on others. In other words, I think censorship creates taboos, and not that taboos create the need for censorship.

What are the challenges you have faced (and continue to face) when you explore taboo subjects?

I think every writer struggles with self-censorship, especially of the kind where you are not even conscious that it is happening. I think the only remedy to that is to read widely, to get as many perspectives on a topic as possible. If you only depend on the mainstream media in Singapore, then you’re just surrendering yourself to indoctrination, where specific ideologies become internalized as ‘common sense’. So it’s very important to keep on making comparative analyses with the political systems and social conditions in other countries.

What was your reaction when you first heard about the dispute between the neighbours over cooking curry?

I was upset because it seemed as if a Singaporean family was being asked to change their lifestyle according to the demands of a family that had arrived from China. They had volunteered to cook curry only if their Chinese neighbours were not at home. It did not seem that the family from China was making a reciprocal compromise, other than a promise that they would taste the curry that the Indian family made. I did not think that this seemed fair at all.

What are the issues you are trying to explore in your new play, Cook A Pot of Curry?

We’re looking at what we call the ‘Great Immigration Debate’, which I think precipitated around the launch of the White Paper on Population. So we’re dealing with issues like the local-foreigner divide, integration, national identity, etc.

Will this play be presented in a documentary style, like ‘Cooling Off Day’ or have you taken a different approach (if that’s not giving too much away!).
It will be similar, but ‘Cook A Pot of Curry’ also contains other theatrical elements like songs and choreography.

What is the message you hope the audience will take away after they have seen ‘Cook A Pot of Curry’?

I hope the play will give them an opportunity to reflect, to challenge their own assumptions, to consider the direction the country is heading.

It is great that Asian Boys Vol. 1 and The Optic Trilogy are being re-staged for this festival after an interval of 10 years.  Did you have to make any changes or tweaks to the scripts to ensure that they are relevant to today’s audience?

Yes there were some tweaks, but not major revisions. Most of the changes were due to certain outdated or optical references. But I think the plays are still fundamentally the same ones I wrote when I first started my playwriting career.

Interview with Glen Goei (Director)

What was your reaction when you first heard about the dispute between neighbours about cooking curry?

I suppose it was much the same reaction that most Singaporeans had towards that controversy. I was truly incredulous at first. What’s wrong with the smell of curry? It’s a spicy, unique fragrance we all grow up with here in Singapore. Why raise the matter up to the police? That particular case very starkly raised issues about immigration, integration and Singapore’s national identity. How are foreigners resident in Singapore assimilating themselves in our landscape? Not just in terms of living among us geographically, but also in cultural terms.

What do you think of Alfian Sa’at’s play – Cook A Pot of Curry?

Curry is a brilliant, challenging play. As he did with Cooling-Off Day, Alfian is talking about issues that are so topical at the moment. If people were outraged back in 2011 when that first controversial pot of curry was cooked, the resentment and anger has grown all the more since then. That gives Alfian the opportunity to create a script that’s rich, complex and thought provoking – but also funny.

What are the challenges you faced when directing this play?

It’s really about walking that fine line between playing the comedy and the truth of the moment. Some of the characters in this play necessarily come across as stereotypes – or more accurately, archetypes – at first. We want everyone to understand that these characters each represent larger communities and larger ideas… while still having them be real, believable individuals with their own stories to tell. That’s a tricky tightrope for us to walk!

And what are the challenges for the cast?

Much the same as mine, I suppose – trying to tell a truthful story at the individual level, while also serving as the symbol for a bigger community… all while making the audience laugh!

What is the message you hope the audience will take away after they have seen ‘Cook A Pot of Curry’?

I hope it entertains people, of course – I think we all need a break from the stress of our working lives, especially now that people can’t de-stress out of doors because of the haze! But I also hope that the play will make people think. I want them to leave the theatre with some of their own ideas and perceptions about this issue challenged. That’s our goal with every W!LD

Ticketing Information:
Cook A Pot of Curry plays at Singapore Airlines Theatre, Lasalle College of the Arts, from July 3 to 20 at 8pm. There are also 3pm matinees on weekends.
The Optic Trilogy plays at Lasalle Creative Cube from July 10 to 20 at 8pm, with weekend matinees.
Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol 1 is at Lasalle Flexible Performance Space from July 3 to 20 at 8pm with weekend matinees.

All tickets from $40 from Sistic. Lasalle is at 1 McNally Street, next to Sim Lim Square. For details on the workshops, discussions and free performances, go to <http://www.wildrice.com.sg>

Beside the three plays, there will also be a free performance of Cooling-Off Day, Alfian’s 2011 blockbuster which centred on Singaporeans’ responses to the last General Elections.


Nithia is a freelance marketing communications professional, copywriter and editor. She is passionate about supporting the arts in Singapore and getting more people fired up about local productions and the arts scene. passions are cookery, cinema and travel.

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