Conjure in your mind an image of a huge motorbike – a monster of a machine cut out of humming metal, radiating power and heat. Now picture the rider who can tame this fierce beast.
Frankly, said rider is unlikely to look much like Nessa Anwar. Yet, this slim, slight pixie of a girl is a seasoned road warrior. She’s been riding motorbikes since 2009, and has the scars and stories to show for it.
“When I was 20, I broke a vertebra in my spine when I went off-road riding,” Nessa shares in a completely matter-of-fact manner.
“That was the worst pain I had ever felt in my life,” Nessa admits, recalling how she had to lie in traction on a flat surface for 48 hours straight. “They strapped me down and I was delirious and crying from the pain – I wanted to die.”
Non-bikers would surely wonder: aren’t such injuries enough to deter Nessa from saddling up again?
And yet, Nessa speaks of riding Faramir – her precious Honda XR400 – with a love and tenderness that informs every scene of her first full-length play, Riders Know When It’s Gonna Rain.
“The freedom of riding a bike is second nature to me,” she enthuses. “It excites every single sense I have. And I really sayang my bike – it’s a part of my identity. When I ride, it becomes a part of my body.”
Writing a play about her experiences as a rider had never crossed Nessa’s mind until Huzir Sulaiman, her mentor and Joint Artistic Director of Checkpoint Theatre, suggested it.
The first iteration of the play, which centres on the deep friendship shared by four riders, was staged as part of Checkpoint Theatre’s ‘What I Love About You Is Your Attitude Problem’ for the 2015 Singapore Writers Festival.
“Riders is a tribute to all the fallen riders,” Nessa explains. “Every single rider knows someone who died in an accident. That’s just a basic fact. And no one knows their stories. So I thought – if I have an opportunity like this, why not tell the stories of this minority group?”
Two such stories resonate particularly strongly with Nessa, and have found their way into Riders. Six years ago, Nizam, one of her dear friends, died on impact when a car ran a red light and ploughed into him.
“I spent hours crying when I was writing the play, because he was really the best human being in the world,” she remembers, tears shining in her eyes.
The other accident involved three best friends who had been inseparable since kindergarten. A trailer side-swept them while they were riding – one rider died immediately; another died in the arms of the final rider.
“It’s so f**king sad,” Nessa says. “Can you imagine watching your two best friends die in front of you?”
The play has since been rewritten for its second staging in the Singapore Theatre Festival, following discussions with the Festival’s Artistic Director Ivan Heng and Dramaturg Alfian Sa’at.
“There was a female character based on me in the first staging, but she wasn’t fully fleshed-out,” Nessa elaborates. “The play was more focused on the friendship and camaraderie amongst the riders. But Ivan and Alfian wanted to see more of my perspective.”
Nessa makes no bones about how frustrating it is to be one of the few female riders in an overwhelmingly male community. “No on trusts a female biker to do or know anything!” she groans. “My guy friends know I ride, and my bike is bigger than most of their bikes. But, when they talk about bikes, they talk amongst themselves.”
She is thrilled to have the opportunity to dig deeper into her character in Riders with her director, Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit. “I put a lot of myself into this female biker,” she observes. “But, working with Kak Alin, I’ve discovered that I’m not just playing myself. I’m actually acting.”
Working in the theatre again after a few years spent working on Suria has also been a treat for Nessa. “I was very uncomfortable with the attention and scrutiny that came with working in the TV industry,” she confesses. “So I returned to the theatre recently, which wholeheartedly welcomed me. It feels like home!”
Riders Know When It’s Gonna Rain, written by and starring Nessa Anwar, plays as part of a double-bill with Hawa at the Singapore Theatre Festival from 30 June to 3 July 2016. Visit www.singaporetheatrefestival.com for more information!
All images courtesy of Nessa Anwar.