Bringing Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita to the Wild Rice Stage

In this quick chat with director Ivan Heng, he shares his motivation and inspiration for working with Julian Wong to expand a 40-minute concert into a full-length musical tribute to the legendary Zubir Said.

How would you describe Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita in one sentence?

It’s a joyful, moving, inspiring tribute to the life and legacy of Pak Zubir Said.

What compelled you to bring this production to Wild Rice?

I first saw the show in its earliest incarnation at the National Gallery in February 2019, when Julian presented it as a 40-minute concert. It blew my mind, it touched my heart, I couldn’t sleep the whole night. At that time, Wild Rice was in the throes of building our own theatre in Funan, a home where we can continue to fulfil our mission of bringing people from all walks of life together, and giving them a sense of pride, of community, of belonging. So I gave Julian a call, and I asked him if he would consider expanding the piece into a full-length musical and performing it in our theatre. He said yes, and the rest is making history. 

Can you tell us more about how you brought Zubir Said’s story to life? How has the show grown since you first saw it?

The first thing I did was to get Alfian on board as a script advisor and consultant to help develop the text, which is now 30 minutes longer than it was. So that’s a whole lot of material – new songs, new ideas, an opportunity for us to really dig deep to try and understand Pak Zubir’s life and his music and his legacy.

In the process of doing so, I had in my mind this idea of presenting it as a 1960s television variety show, because that was the heyday for Singapore as a centre for entertainment in Southeast Asia – it was a very fabulous era. Our multimedia designer, He Shuming, mined these old Shaw Brothers and Cathay-Keris films for footage. Together with our lighting, set and costumes, we’ve beautifully recreated that time. I think you’ll find that it has all the production values that audiences have come to expect of a Wild Rice show.

What is one thing from this production that has really resonated with you?

Because Julian wanted to write a story to honour his teacher’s teacher, four generations of musicians are represented on stage in Don’t Call Him Mr. Mari Kita – from Pak Zubir and the late, great Cultural Medallion winner, Iskandar Ismail to Julian’s own students, who are on stage performing with him. As a result, every time I’m in rehearsal or watch a performance of this show, I’m reminded about our obligation to pass on our knowledge, our stories, to the next generation. This is our culture, our heritage. This is who we are. And if we don’t do this, we’re lost.

If you could have dinner with Pak Zubir today, what would you say to him?

I would say: Pak Zubir, I’m sorry we didn’t give you the love, the recognition and the respect you so deserved during your lifetime. And then I would say thank you. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your music, your compositions, which have brought so much joy, that have united a nation, that continue to inspire us moving forward. Terima kasih.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin