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Theatre review: Miss British explores the problematic legacy of colonialism in Singapore

The play offers frank, funny personal stories that examine the 'colonial wound'.

Who is Miss British?

In the bicentennial year of the British arrival in Singapore, three actresses attempt to address the legacy of colonialism that has permeated their lives.

The piece has its roots in the 2014 monologue The Extraordinary Travels Of Miss British by Singapore-based British actress Sharon Frese. It is proving a strong year for the charismatic, irreverent Frese, who comes fresh from her powerful M1 Singapore Fringe Festival piece Ayer Hitam in January.

Miss British has been reimagined for this Studios season by Mexican director Felipe Cervera as intertwining monologues by Frese, who is of Jamaican heritage, as well as Singaporean performers Grace Kalaiselvi and Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai.

They move among an audience seated intimately in the round platform steps, reflected on screens via live camera.

They draw on personal experiences, from classroom racism to a visa nightmare where the officer refuses to acknowledge the black British applicant, assuming she is an asylum-seeker, until her German husband puts in an appearance.

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They strive to make connections between the prejudice all three face as dark-skinned women descended from colonial subjects and slaves.

Miss British can tend towards the didactic. The play makes well-intentioned, but heavy-handed use of repetition to demonstrate the cyclical nature of systemic oppression.

In a thrice-repeated sequence, the performers move about the stage with a teacup and a baby doll, while quotes from thinkers such as Audre Lorde and Walter Mignolo are flashed across the screens. This feels less like enlightenment and more like rote learning.

There is a great deal more telling than showing. Sometimes, the script will have a performer describe the emotions another is representing, rather than let the acting itself do the work.

It is at its strongest when it presents personal stories with a raw intimacy, as in Loo Zihan’s black-and-white videos of each actress recounting a memory – being propositioned on holiday, encounters with migrant workers and learning to love music.

A frank, funny segment by Dorai on the difficulties of dating and racialised desire is also a stand-out.

Her remarkable singing voice is also put to good use in the many musical segments, which range from Billie Holiday stylings to a bluesy spiritual satire about Olay whitening cream.

This work sets in motion timely, vital conversations that examine the “colonial wound”.

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This article was originally published in The Straits Times.

Photo: Loo Zihan/The Art of Strangers