Sun, Sep 01, 2019 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: Listening, sharing are key: theater veteran

By Ho Tsung-han and Sherry Hsiao  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

Director Peng Ya-ling, front left, leads a workshop for students in Bogota, Columbia, in an undated photograph.

Photo provided by Peng Ya-ling

“Language has never been an issue in our theater,” said director Peng Ya-ling (彭雅玲), a theater veteran and oral historian who has traveled around the world to listen to the stories of local people and perform the stories on stage.

Peng joined the Square and Round Theatre (方圓劇場) in 1980 as an actress, playwright and director before creating her own troupe, the Uhan Shii Theatre Group (歡喜扮戲團), in 1995.

Her troupe’s Echoes of Taiwan (台灣告白) has earned it many invitations to international arts festivals, at which the work has been performed in various languages without subtitles or translations.

However, Peng said she believes that cultural exchanges involve more than just traveling to a different place and performing.

Performers should “not only be thinking about what we want to say or expressing how beautiful we are, how capable we are,” she said. “We should first listen to what others have to say, and then share our own stories with them.”

In 2016, Peng was invited to bring Echoes of Asia to Makassar, the capital of Indonesia’s South Sulawesi Province, where in 1997 a mixed-race man of Chinese descent accidentally killed a Muslim woman — an incident that triggered widespread violence and planted a seed for the 1998 anti-Chinese riots in the country.

As part of the project, Peng interviewed a group of local ethnic Chinese and hired Indonesian actors to perform their stories.

“When I was with Indonesians, I heard many bad things about ethnic Chinese,” Peng said. “When I went to the home of an ethnic Chinese, they would not even allow the Indonesians that I had brought with me to step inside.”

She told the ethnic Chinese the bad things that she had heard being said about them, and then told the Indonesians their responses, she said, adding that through this process, she learned that “the Indonesian government had suppressed ethnic Chinese and the culture of Chinese language in various ways, that Indonesian textbooks clearly stated anti-Chinese [sentiments] and that there were too many cases to be counted in which the government had extorted ethnic Chinese.”

“Many ethnic Chinese mentioned in their interviews that they originally had 10 or more siblings, but only had a few left now,” she said.

Initially thinking that the decline was due to a high infant mortality rate, she said she later learned that “nearly every family had experienced their homes being burned.”

Many people also told of their experiences of watching their siblings get raped or of hiding inside closets, she said.

Peng said that when she asked families how they got back on their feet after losing all their property in the fires, they told her that they united, formed mutual aid societies and worked hard at their businesses.

After three weeks of interviews and rehearsals, Echoes of Asia hosted a panel discussion, she said, adding that as soon as the many academics, experts and journalists arrived, they began to yell at her because of her Chinese appearance.

Before her interpreter could even tell her what they were saying, the Indonesian actors stood up and defended her with tears in their eyes, she said.

The actors’ impression of ethnic Chinese, after hearing the stories of her interviewees over the previous three weeks, had changed, she said, adding that portraying ethnic Chinese also changed the actors.

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