Surviving Jakarta

Photo is courtesy of Teater Koma

What I have always admired from us Indonesians, is our resilience when everything feels so uncertain. From pesky government officials, leg-stiffening traffic and floods, we’ll always find ways to overcome, with a dab of humor here and there. Heck, I could ramble on for days to fully express my concerns over the capital. Of its uneven sidewalks, the lack of them, always finding my foot accidentally soaked in murky puddles after the rain, and oh my goodness, the annoying catcalls despite being fully clothed. Yes because walking around as a woman (cue the Britney song) is basically equivalent to parading around naked.

See? It’s definitely easy to get carried away with the complaints. However, looking out your car windows, the sight of hardship greater than our petty complaints will suddenly leave your throat dry, and drives you even further into anger and complain some more. Furthermore, it’s difficult to not feel an ounce of heaviness in your heart, and I don’t care how cliche this all sounds. Who I would often see are those who sell anything they hope would be purposeful for others in between traffic. Under the midday sun, they would approach our cars with squinted eyes to offer a handful of goodies like tissue packs, neck pillows, balloons, bobbly Scooby Doo heads, and even red roses! But if you look closer, they will always smile at you.

So, who am I to complain? It just makes me want to work even harder, and create more than I would overly criticize. But even so, the promise of free expression in this country have not always been as liberating as it sounds. And this is where play I recently saw comes in. Opera Kecoa, is a play performed by Teater Koma – a theatre group first established back in 1977, that is currently seeing the light of day after being banned in the 1990’s, and 13 years after it was allowed again in 2003. I have never been to one of their plays before and after seeing this, I have nothing but praise. and mind you, 31 years ago, ticket booth windows at Jakarta’s arts and cultural center, Taman Ismail Marzuki were smashed by people who were enthusiastic about seeing the play. Why is that so? Because the play is absolutely rich with political and social criticism, and people were intrigued by the appeal of showcasing the minorities of Jakarta and their struggle to just survive under harsh realities. Even if it means remaining in rowdy slums, alleyways, culverts, and gutters in peace. This, however, was a major no-no for the government at the time and watching this 31 years later, I’m left wondering if we’re still behind.

The people portrayed in Opera Kecoa are those facing everyday life on the streets like sex workers, preman or thugs and beggars. And in this 3-hour play, we will see Roima, and his transgender girlfriend slash sex worker, Julini. They have returned from their hometown to Jakarta, to search for better opportunities. This leads the both of them to reunite with their old friends such as Tarsih, the owner of a brothel, and Tuminah, the most popular prostitute whom eventually finds comfort in Roima. So, the play’s major events and conflict begins there. But before that, the play actually opens with a dark situation, where Roima carries a dead Julini, after he was hit by a ricocheting bullet and performs an emotional soliloquy in anger of his death.

Julini, played by Joind Bayuwinanda was our most likable character with his straightforward, and cheeky – No, cheeky doesn’t even describe the jokes uttered in this play because they were downright raunchy. But like I said before, we have always been able to shake unfortunate circumstances off our shoulders with humor. And Opera Kecoa, has effectively proven it because audiences were falling off their seats in laughter although, sometimes I think that I’m laughing along with my tears. Really, throughout the length of the play, I found myself trying to rid some heavy lumps in my throat because of how this play is just bursting with truth, unabashed honesty and sentimental moments that is especially profound between Roima and Julini.

As the story moves forward, we see that the slums that are home to our characters are burned down, and you will always question if it was done on purpose. A small excerpt from the play’s blurb is a chilling answer to that question; “No one knows. Everything is dark, just like the future,”, and sends my mind burning. Looking at our social and political climate right now, everything reeks with tension, distrust and pointed fingers are flying around in rogue, looking for anyone and anything to blame that we ignore the fact that we’re pushing away what matters. It’s joining our hands in solidarity, to give the ignored, the undermined, and the surviving a voice.