When good struggles against the flawed
David versus Goliath – that is the image which comes to mind when director Claire Wong describes what lies at the heart of the play, Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner.
The work, which premieres at the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), is written by Huzir Sulaiman and staged by the homegrown Checkpoint Theatre. It explores the hard truths of the foreign aid industry where the goodness of humanitarian workers is pitted against the consequences of political play, as well as the work of flawed institutions.
It is about the singular as much as the epic; the one person and all of humanity, says Wong. On the surface, it examines how individual aid workers try to make good decisions and a difference to the lives of thousands of refugees, but it also resonates with the everyman.
Wong says: “Dramatically, the world occupied by the aid worker is a potent context to examine and ask questions about the human condition. Whether or not we are aid workers, we all understand what it means to be confronted with difficult choices, whether personally or professionally, when considering the individual versus the greater good.”
How these issues play out in humanitarian crises has long held the interest of Wong and Huzir, who are husband and wife, and this play, commissioned by SIFA, has given them a stage to offer audiences food for thought. They take us behind the scenes on how the play came together, and their hopes for it.
Why did you tackle the topic of humanitarian workers for your play on the refugee crisis?
Huzir: When I first started writing Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner, I tried to interrogate why I’m interested in humanitarian crises, and I realised what I’m interested in are the organisations and aid workers themselves. Often, they share the same vectors of privilege I enjoy – education, speaking English, being from a peaceful developed country, having cultural capital.
I wanted to critique people like me with general privilege and situational power as I’m wary of trying to evoke the refugee experience in that earnest worthy way and reproduce tropes of generalised suffering.
The refugee crisis is not just an issue concerning refugees, it’s also an issue of how organisations and institutions respond. I think it’s important for us to look at how we can make our institutions better, whatever our organisation or field of endeavour.
Tell us more about your experience researching for the play.
Huzir: The research process started with reading thousands of pages of books, articles, and online resources. I then started getting referrals to people in the humanitarian world from mutual friends. I interviewed them by Skype, in most cases, as they were in different parts of the world. They spoke on condition of anonymity, and I think that allowed them to be very open and honest with me about the challenges and rewards of humanitarian work. I was moved by how they were at the same time really strong people and also vulnerable and emotional, and this led me to try and create characters that were quite layered and hopefully nuanced.
What is one thing you hope the audience will take away?
Wong: I hope that the work will imprint itself and inspire questions about the human condition that they will want to ponder. For me, despite the complexities and difficulties, I find beauty in the fact that people find the courage and hope to carry on, to do better.
Huzir: I want them to continue to ask questions about how we relate to our institutions, and how those institutions relate to the world.
Details about Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner here.