Writing For Kumar

Originally published in Esquire Singapore, June 2016

Kumar and I are sitting outside the rehearsal studio bitching about our mothers. It is Sunday, and we’ve both had to tell our mothers that we can’t spend time with them because we have rehearsal.

Of course, we’ve also had to tell them that it’s because the rest of the cast members are part-timers who can’t make rehearsals during the workweek. It doesn’t matter that both our mothers would have told us that we shouldn’t work around other people’s schedules.

It’s all done in the course of curtailing the motherly guilt trips that we’ve been exchanging notes on.

These notes end up in the first few show scripts commissioned by Dream Academy Productions, who put up the Esplanade sell-outs: Kumar: Stripped Bare and Standing Up (2009, 2010); Kumar’s Amazing Race (2011 and 2012); Kumar: What Makes A Man A Man (2013); and Kumar Stands Up For Singapore(2015).

That Sunday afternoon in 2011 ends horribly for me, as I rush from rehearsal to Gleneagles Hospital in time to see medical staff trying to resuscitate my mother who dies that evening. I return to the theatre after a week and in time for the closing show. It’s sold out, of course, and it’s a cracker of a show. I venture backstage to see Kumar, and he gives me a hug, and says it was a good show and a good audience. We avoid dealing with the elephants in the room that night, the ones named Grief and Guilt.

But that is the way it is with Kumar and me. It is painfully difficult to extract any useful information when you ask him a direct question — such as when did you come out to your parents? But if you lubricated him by telling him about other people’s experiences, you’d have a far more productive script workshop, because we’d both laugh — like the time I told him how a friend had to come out to his mother because he was caught sitting in front of a table fan, lip syncing Vanessa Williams’ “Colours of the Wind” with a towel on his head to simulate long, flowing tresses.

We argued about whether that friend’s mother was wrong to ask if her son was gay, based on that one role-play incident. Kumar then recalled the time when he was caught in his mother’s saree, twirling in front of the mirror, and his mother stumbling upon his performance. This ended up in a script for one of the shows, as did the time when his late father first saw him in drag, coming home from Bugis Street in the early ’90s. The innocuous punchline was “he was going out to work; I was coming out from work”.

Rewind two years, and I’ve just become Kumar’s principal writer for an Esplanade show when I get a phone call from a producer from Dream Academy in December 2008, asking if I have time in the next month or so to write for a brand-new show called Kumar: Stripped Bare and Standing Up, because his “usual writer”, Esan Sivalingam, is stuck doing a TV project and has to pull out. I have one month to deliver a script for a 100-minute show.

The first week is a torture, after watching him perform a few sets at Hard Rock Café, we sit down to a fruitless, smoke-filled session where all I glean are tiny snippets of his life growing up in the workers’ quarters in SPCA where his father worked.

The first script read is a disaster. Kumar reads the pages like a primary school oral exam candidate, tripping on words, flatlining punchlines, and more significantly, pausing at profanities, which litter the 50-plus page script. At the end of the reading, he throws the script on the table, looks at me squarely and asks, “Why are you so vulgar and racist?”

Was he joking? I wait for him to break out of the deadpan and serious, but to my horror, he doesn’t. He senses my implosion, and finally offers, “I don’t use any vulgarities on stage. If I say ‘fuck’, it’s accidental. I cannot say all this — fuck, cunt, chibai, lancheow.” And that becomes the moment the ice breaks and the veil between the performer and the person drops, as does every single profanity in the scripts that I write for him.

Rehearsals are a breeze thereafter, and the off-stage Kumar cannot be more different from the decked out, bitchy, pointed persona people who sit in the front row are terrified of. “Rehearsal Kumar” almost always arrives early for meetings, even after having stopped by a BreadTalk or a similar outlet to buy enough snacks to feed the entire theatre company.

He is a year older than I am, and we share many similar experiences in both our lives — being ostracised and bullied in school, being in a combat unit in national service, and of course, having well-meaning but overbearing mothers. These end up being amalgamated into his “autobiographical” skits in the shows that we work on.

The shows are still rated R18 to placate the MDA, or in Kumar’s own words, “It’s because I’m wearing a dress, darling”. This is Singapore’s most famous drag queen talking, and you would imagine him as a trailblazer, the leading light for LGBT rights. After all, he’d make a very prominent ambassador for such a thing. But strangely, when I ask after his stance, Kumar says he will not support marriage equality or even the repeal of Section 377A. He doesn’t qualify why, beyond saying, “It’s just wrong”, sounding like his mother and aunt whom we’ve both worked to caricature.

I wait for him to break out of the deadpan and serious, and to my shrinking horror, he doesn’t. But no matter, because it ends up in the script, the punchline being: “I want them to keep gay sex criminal, so that when I am having sex, instead of screaming, “I’m coming!”, I can shout, ‘Police coming! Police coming!’ More exciting like that.”