On a stormy evening in the heart of Geylang, we take shelter in a bustling kopitiam with Rodney Oliveiro. The relentless rain is keeping Rodney from completing his task for the night – shooting more video footage of the neighbourhood’s sights and sounds.
This unexpected break in the schedule gives us time to discuss how Geylang has inspired Rodney creatively for close to two decades.
“There’s a certain kind of vitality to Geylang,” Rodney muses. “A different vibe or energy, which could be due to the large number of migrant residents who have settled here. This has endured through the years, even though the area has become more gentrified.”
Rodney’s first intimate experience with Geylang came in 1997, when he performed in Geylang People in the Net, a play by the late, great Kuo Pao Kun.
“Pao Kun felt that there was a need to document the area through all its changes and transitions,” Rodney recalls. “We devised the play over three months, with a big, diverse cast.”
To get better acquainted with the area, the cast immersed themselves in Geylang. In groups of four, they spent an entire night – from 10pm to 6am the next morning – wandering through the neon-lit lorongs.
The entire experience left quite an impression on Rodney. It’s why Geylang People In The Net came to mind when, as young & W!LD’s co-director, he was looking for a play for W!LD RICE’s youth development division to do.
Rodney began working on the script with the third cohort of young & W!LD. But, as they amassed more and more material through workshops, devising sessions and their own field trip to Geylang, he decided to let it all “grow into its own play”.
“The characters and ideas we came up with were so vibrant and inspiring,” he explains. “I thought it was a shame to discard them.”
The final piece, simply titled Geylang, weaves together four stories inspired by incidents from Geylang’s past and present. These include the racial riots that took place in the 1960s, which sparked a subplot exploring the tensions between the Chinese and Malays who call the area home.
The play is also populated by gangsters, single mothers and civil servants, whose trials and tribulations will take audiences on a thrill ride of nostalgia, crime and urban renewal.
There’s little doubt that Geylang holds a special place in Rodney’s heart. “This is a first for me,” he says. “As a drama educator, a lot of my work has been for schools. I’ve never written or directed a play that has been performed for the public.”
He’s currently working on refining the play to fill the larger space it will occupy as part of the Singapore Theatre Festival. Geylang was a sold-out hit when it debuted as a young & W!LD showcase in May last year, but it played in a tiny venue.
With this incarnation of the play, Rodney is planning to expand its scope through multimedia. “I’m trying to bring some of the space of Geylang into the theatre,” he explains. “I want to capture new angles and new ways of seeing Geylang, particularly the parts you don’t normally see.”
As a result, Rodney has spent several evenings prowling through Geylang with his video camera. As he threads his way up and down the lorongs, he shoots footage of people and places, which he will splice together in collaboration with multimedia director Andre Chong.
By this point in our conversation, the rain has lightened to a drizzle. We leave the bright, hectic coffee-shop and, within moments, we are in a dark, quiet back alley.
As we walk, Rodney stops every so often, shooting footage of anything that catches his eye. He captures a meditation session, as well as a Christian mission located just a stone’s throw away from a hotel. His camera peeks between the shutters of a shop filled with Buddha statues.
Does anything about his many field trips to Geylang still surprise him? “There’s always an element of mystery,” he affirms. “You can walk down a lorong and stumble upon a staircase that disappears upwards into darkness. Suddenly, you’re transported back to an old-school, film noir version of Singapore.”
Strolling through the lorongs, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s something oddly romantic about Geylang. More than anywhere else in Singapore, it feels like a place where rules and inhibitions somehow hold less sway than they ordinarily would.
“Food, durians, sex, nightclubs,” Rodney observes with a smile, as we part for the night. “You can indulge all your appetites here – it’s a place where you can go wild!”
Geylang, written and directed by Rodney Oliveiro, plays at the Singapore Theatre Festival from 30 June to 3 July 2016. Visit www.singaporetheatrefestival.com for more information!