Sun, 10 Oct 1999

Theater helps heal wounded community

By Blontang Poer

SURAKARTA, Central Java (JP): A pregnant young woman was shouting, smiling and at times complaining about her fate. With her clothes in tatters and her burned face blistered, she was walking among the rubble of a building that had been razed to the ground. The woman occasionally condemned the brutishness of the people who had raped her.

Meanwhile, a number of security guards tried to coerce her not to talk anymore about the incident and the way she had become pregnant. They said she should sleep, so that what had happened to her seemed only a dream.

Seeing the performance of the play Korban-korban berjatuhan (Victims Fall) by Teater Ruang in Surakarata, staged in an interactive theater on the banks of a river on Sep. 30, the hundreds of spectators were reminded of the May 14-15, 1998 tragedy which nearly devastated their lives. The community, already hit by the economic crisis, could not obtain basic foodstuffs because most of the shops had been burned down. Many rape cases from that time, involving mostly ethnic Chinese women, have still not been solved.

Joko Bibit Santoso, the playwright and director of the play, does not want to give a solution to the problems raised by these events. But he does provide a tragic ending where part of the stage is burned. It is obvious he means it to recall the savagery of the riots. The play contains a long dialogue between the security guards (a metaphor for the security apparatus) that illustrates they also have conflicts of opinion in facing the criticisms of the community.

It is apparent that Joko's intention is to invite viewers to reflect on the May incident. Incidentally, the people living close to the river - who made up the majority of the spectators - are the people who participated mostly during the riots and subsequent looting.

The play certainly made the spectators think, and they were occasionally shocked. An ethnic Chinese boy expressed his "regrets"; he said that if he was allowed to choose he would have been born with brown skin so he would not have to carry the burden of his ethnic heritage. "I was born not because I wanted to. Why have we been victimized? As for food, language and religion I just take what there is around me," said the boy, a junior high school student.

The performance started with a rebana (tambourine) music show using Islamic verses - interspersed with Javanese nuances - which was performed by students of the Al-Muayyad Muslim boarding school. At the Surakarta Arts Center on Sept. 26 a show combining different cultural elements took place. The students tambourine music alternated with singing of a church choir. There was also a Balinese Hindu dance and finally a combination of barongsai (lion dance) and wushu martial art performance with strong Chinese characteristics.

The Salatiga forum promotes this activity in cooperation with existing religious institutions, like Muslim boarding schools, churches and Hindu and Confucian temples. They are optimistic that their approach through art is able to loosen the knots of sectarianism. Especially since conflicts between ethnic and religious groups have affected parts of the Surakarta population for generations. Previously, various efforts were made to solve the problem but they didn't yield results.

The atmosphere during the performance came as a relief to all groups. Ethnic Chinese children did no look uneasy sitting next to, and applauding with, other ethnic groups. Loud applause was heard in the Taman Budaya Surakarta when the church choir finished singing. They shook hands and embraced each other after senior high school students, trained by the Indonesian Confucian Society of Surakarta, gave a wushu performance.

Kiai H.M. Dian Nafi from the Al Muayyad boarding school, Father Mardi Widayat from the Catholic Church and Aji Chandra from the Confucius Society were smiling proudly seeing the harmony among their pupils. Martidjono, head of the Surakarta Art Center believes the use of art as an alternative method to teach children about cultural differences is right. This is because, "Only art is able to bridge the various differences in ethnicity, religion and ideology in a pluralistic community. Especially because the spirit in art emphasizes adulthood in attitude."

On the evidence of Korban-Korban, this view is not exaggerated. That evening the audience followed intently the story and felt free to identify themselves with the dialogue on stage.

In their entertainment the spectators found a temporary release from the grip of the current uncertain sociopolitical situation. On their way home they were also left to think about cultural problems and the need for immediate solutions.

The performance that evening should hopefully help Surakarta's people to a new awareness. Namely, that a more civilized life can only be achieved with a spirit of togetherness, regardless of ethnicity, religion and party ideology.