Actor Jalyn Han on aging for the sake of art
It is hard to tell from theatre practitioner Jalyn Han’s youthful appearance that she is 58. When The A List meets her, she is rocking a cropped mullet, thick black frames and chunky white sandals worn over cartoon character socks.
On screen, for our video interview, the consummate actor with almost four decades of experience in the arts exudes palpable warm and serenity. On stage, she is a versatile thespian and no stranger to taking on roles that are much older than her real age.
She will be playing Ah Ma, a Teochew-speaking octogenarian, in a return production of Grandmother Tongue, scheduled for later this year. The play, by homegrown theatre company Wild Rice, offers a heart-warming look at the relationship between a grandmother and grandson, who struggle to connect because they don’t speak the other’s language.
Written and directed by playwright Thomas Lim, the play was first staged in 2016 to sold-out crowds. It has drawn critical praise for its insightful take on the social impact of Singapore’s bilingual education policy and the gradual loss of use of Chinese dialects.
We chat with Han on what it is like to age prematurely for a role and the place of Chinese dialects in her life.
What is it like to prematurely age for your role and play a much older character?
I have to behave like how a real ah ma would. This means, for example, adopting the body posture of someone older, which is physically demanding. I have to engage my core muscles to hold the posture, but I must make it seem natural and relaxed. Otherwise, I get Ah Ma as a character. Like her, I have a lot of pride and I don’t like to trouble others.
Did the loss of use of Chinese dialects affect you personally?
Growing up in a kampung in Sembawang, my neighbours spoke different Chinese dialects, but very few understood my native dialect, Hainanese. So, my parents taught us children the different dialects. Being able to speak the other dialects allowed us to become closer to one another.
Personally, I feel we are to blame for not giving our dialects a chance. People made the choice to speak the official languages and not pass on their native dialects to their children. I hope the younger generation will give dialects a chance in the same way that they learn a new language to understand more about a foreign culture they love.
How do you feel about playing Ah Ma a third time?
I treasure every run of a production like it is my last. It is especially are for a new original work to be given the chance to re-run, let alone three times. As an actor, I am grateful for yet another opportunity to refine my skills and portray Ah Ma.
Every show feels unique to me even though I am playing the same character. Each live experience is different. I hope the audience will, like me, come with an open mind and new eyes and discover something they might have missed from the last run.
Responses have been edited for clarity.