Video by Martha Spiess
Earlier in the semester, when theater student Phui Yi Kong ’15 was considering what project she wanted to work on for her independent assignment, her imagination and ambition traveled far beyond the limits of the stage, and far beyond Bowdoin’s campus.
Kong, who is from Malaysia, decided she wanted to work on a play she could perform for Malaysian teenagers —one that grappled with issues familiar to young people in her country. Malaysian students who show promise are under pressure to succeed at school, at college and in their careers. The ones who earn scholarships tend to follow fairly predictable routes to success by becoming, say, lawyers, doctors or engineers. This social expectation to conform can stifle individuality and artistic aspirations, Kong says, and ultimately dampen a young person’s potential.
Kong contacted Pang Khee Teik, a now 40-year-old Malaysian artist, writer and activist, to get his permission to adapt his autobiographical story, “Cream of the Crop,” for the stage. In the story, Pang recalls his experiences as a scholarship student at an elite school. He describes, through a series of anecdotes, his youthful relationships, his awakening awareness of his homosexuality, and his feelings of being different. The story takes place in part at a reunion for his classmates where he finds he has become the least conventionally successful of his peers — a mere freelance photographer.
Kong first read Pang’s piece when she was 18 and immediately connected to it. “Pang’s story is about me and all the other kids driven to achieve success through conformity,” she said.
In her performance, Kong brings to life Pang’s funny, a self-aware voice, conveying him as a young man who is both insecure and compassionate. Kong also impersonates the characters that Pang encounters and speaks to, turning the multi-character narrative into a riveting solo act. “She played all the parts and was clear, deliberate and confident,” Kong’s theater professor Davis Robinson said. “You know who she is and who she is talking to onstage, and that is a real skill.”
Robinson added, “It was a great piece. Jaws dropped [in the audience].”
Kong’s play was a capstone project for her class, Theater Studio, taught by Robinson. Every other year the theater department offers the class as a way to let advanced theater students develop an independent study. Although they are working independently, the students in the class meet regularly to offer one another feedback and critiques as they develop their semester-long projects. Robinson said the other 13 students in the class wrote, performed and directed original plays, films and shows.
Kong is in the process now of contacting schools in Malaysia to see whether they would welcome her production when she returns home in July. The play’s frank depiction of a boy’s self-exploration would be well-received by middle school and high school students, she said, although some school authorities might be uncomfortable with the play’s sexual content.
“I think having an outlet for expression would really nourish students and help them to make better decisions,” Kong said. At age 15, Malaysian students must decide which professional track to pursue, further adding to the stress they experience at this age. “In their high-pressure environment, there is no outlet to talk about sexuality or about identity.”
A theater and English major, Kong plans to spend a couple years doing theater in the United States after she finishes her studies at Bowdoin next December. Eventually she would like to return to Malaysia, to continue her work as an artist and performer.