Last night (23 April 2009) I was invited to attend a dress rehearsal for Sum: Cerita dari Rantau (Sum: A Story of a Journey), a 40-minute solo monologue by Teater Garasi actress B. Verry Handayani in collaboration with writers Andri Nur Latif and Joned Suryatmoko. The play concerns Sum, a TKW (Indonesian female worker) from Indramayu who was physically and sexually abused in Saudi Arabia, and also relates the experience of other TKW in Malaysia, Korea, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Supported by a number of LSM (non-governmental agencies), the work toured around Yogyakarta in 2008 and is being remounted for a tour around rural Java, including Indramayu. It is a work of documentary theatre, based on interviews conducted by the actress herself. Photos of TKW (not necessarily ones of the women depicted in the play) adorned the set, as did newspaper clippings on the topic of TKW.
Verry proved to be a very capable mimic, assuming a variety of postures and accents ranging from an elderly relative of Sum (speaking in a mixture of Cirebon Javanese and Indonesian) to a pompous airport official on why TKW need to have their own arrival terminal in Jakarta. This was interspersed with commentary in her own voice, and a few moments of audience interaction. A live guitar provided musical accompaniment.
The LSM connected to the project are concerned that TKW often depart without full knowledge of working conditions and the hazards they face as vulnerable, isolated women. After one of the Yogyakarta performances, a woman told Verry that the performance had moved her to reconsider her decision to be a TKW. After each performance, there will be a chance for the Teater Garasi team to dialogue with spectators and reps from the LSM or local government will assist with questions.
The portrait of Sum was perhaps not as psychologically nuanced as desired, but the work raises important sociological problems. After the rehearsal, one of the Garasi members watching wondered how it would play to a pesantren audience. Would devout Muslims feel affronted by the depiction of Saudi violence? And how might this stage work be channelled into meaningful social action?