“When can all citizens enjoy rights; To the same justice, the same treatment; And be known as one race: Bangsa Malaysia?”
The poem titled My Friend, translated from the original version of Sahabatku, was recited by theatre veteran Joe Hasham with a dance performance by Feyee Bethany, during the staging of Experiencing Usman Awang at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac), recently.
The late National Laureate Datuk Dr Usman Awang dedicated this poem to his close friend Dr MK Rajakumar, where he reflected on the inequalities among Malaysians. Rajakumar was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in the 1960s.
For the co-founders of the KLPac and The Actors Studio Joe Hasham and Datuk Dr Faridah Merican, Sahabatku also reflected Usman’s humanist personality; he was friendly to everyone regardless of background and race.
“I chose to present the poem My Friend and his novel Scattered Bones as a tribute to Usman as our good friend and my mentor in this casting.
“I knew Usman through my wife Faridah in the early 1980s. He became my mentor not only in the appreciation of performing arts and literature but also in life.
“It was a challenge marrying a local woman but Usman, who was our ‘middle man’ eased my journey with Faridah,” recalled Hasham about his good friend Usman.
At the recent KLPac theatre show, Hasham also read part of Scattered Bones (Tulang-Tulang Berserakan), the only novel written by Usman that brings together action, tragedy and joy between the British and Malayan Communists fighting for control over Malaya.
Faridah, who is known as the First Lady of Malaysian Theatre, described Usman as a “muhibbah and easy going” man.
“He was so passionate about the muhibbah spirit and full of love for humanity. He also never showed hatred for anyone and was always smiling.
“I have always been a big fan of Usman. He drew many admirers of his works since I knew him in the 1960s.
“His writings often reflect and question the realities in culture, society and behaviour,” said Faridah, who was also the director of Experiencing Usman Awang.
In memory of a literary giant
Born as Wan Osman Wan Awang in 1929 in Kuala Sedili, Johor, Usman was known for his passion for the arts and used the pseudonym “Tongkat Warrant” in his early years of writing at age 19.
Through his thoughtful and progressive works, which addressed the importance of racial harmony, he became a true advocate for multi-racialism, having travelled the world and observed various cultures and peoples.
He was known as the “people’s poet” as his writing touched Malaysians’ hearts regardless of age, race or gender, and had won many literary awards, including the SEA Write Award (1982) and National Laureate (1983).
His talent and achievements were extraordinary, considering he stopped schooling at a very young age due to his family’s financial limitations.
He was a forced labourer during the Japanese invasion and worked as a policeman during the British rule in Malaya.
Usman died on Nov 29, 2001.
Theatre in four languages
The Experiencing Usman Awang theatre performance, which was the KLPAC’s second live show after four months, took off without a hitch from Oct 21-24 amid strict SOPs and a limited audience capacity.
KLPac and The Actors Studio put a new spin on his works through eight short plays.
The plays – Scattered Bones (Tulang-tulang Berserakan), Sahabatku, Beli Buatan Malaysia, Kekasih, Merpati Putih, Jelajahi Dunia Ini, Mata Ayah, Ke Makan Bonda and Salam Benua – were presented by a multi-generational cast of 16 actors.
Some works – reimagined in four languages (Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mandarin and Hokkien) – were recited as poetry while some interpreted as a dance and yet others featured original music, with themes of love, compassion, unity and a spirit of togetherness.
Faridah said the casting team started Zoom rehearsals for the theatre show on June 14 with the hope of staging it for Usman’s birthday on July 12.
“Unfortunately, due to the MCO, we had to postpone it. But we did not give up and kept going by making preparations, hoping that we would be allowed to be back on stage.
“We really wanted to make it happen and finally we made it on the stage now,” said Faridah, who expressed excitement over the opening show on Oct 21.
Some 220 people attended the showcase series.
Faridah said it was refreshing to see Usman’s works reimagined in different languages and forms with the hope that the audience will see a side of Malaysia that is kind, accepting and diverse.
Faridah said the theatre series is an effort to remember Usman and his masterpieces, as well as to keep his legacy alive.
“We plan to do this annually as a lovely tribute. It has been 20 years since Usman passed away. But for me, Usman will be always in my heart,” she said.
Hasham said although the show is not a grand gala performance, “these are very small gestures that we are doing for such a great man.”
“This would be close to his heart if he is still alive,” he said. – Bernama