Jeanette Peh is determined to become an actor, but she already thinks she is something of a star on her YouTube channel ‘Stage Whispers’ which has 500 subscribers. She turns down a place at Law School in Singapore to fulfill her acting dreams instead. But in London, her expectations are shattered in the face of racism, bigotry, and an identity crisis.
Jeanette (Ethel Yap) thinks that the image she promotes of herself is all-important, and broadcasts from her phone a cosmopolitan and posh version of herself. She speaks Mandarin at home and English in public. “I have such a neutral accent,” she proclaims proudly. But as soon as she arrives at her London drama school, she is pigeonholed as an Asian student, and alienates the other students by correcting their English grammar.
Jeanette tries to deny her Asian heritage, embracing English language and culture. But her peer in acting class, Yun Yun (the humorous Chang Ting Wei), sees another way to get ahead: by bowing to racial expectations and playing up the stereotypical Asian girl with Hello Kitty jokes, heart-shaped hand gestures and broken English.
Jo Tan’s comedy, Forked, riffs on identity politics, cultural stereotypes, and the way we are seen and present ourselves to the world. Who is the real Jeanette? Is she Chinese, Chinese Singaporean, or largely westernised Chinese Singaporean? Is she a victim of endemic British racism, or perhaps also a victim of her own cultural identity crisis and internalised racism?
Tan intersects the narrative of Jeanette’s bumpy journey to greater self-awareness and self-knowledge with satirical, cartoonish interludes culled from popular culture and TV. They are not sufficiently hard-hitting, and the danger is that these reinforce the cliches rather than undercut and subvert them. It lets the audience off the hook.
Yap broadcasts on ‘Stage Whispers’ throughout the play, building a professional platform and projecting a carefully curated image of her social-cosmopolitan-self. But like everybody else in the play, is she really being true to herself, or simply playing a part?
Jeanette goes on a Tinder date with an English lad called Scott, but the relationship doesn’t last. She finds out he is not English but actually Cypriot and Muslim. Prejudice also rears its head when she gets a part-time job as a waitress in a cafe. Joanna Pilgrim’s working class Sophie wants to know if Jeanette is posh. Jeannette makes a cultural blunder, blithely unaware of class disparities and the simple fact that any Singaporean abroad is incredibly more affluent than a British person working in a cafe. When Sophie rails against “foreigners taking our jobs,” it may be racist, but it is also the cry of the economically dispossessed.
This Singaporean girl continues to struggle to find her feet in the world and resolve her identity crisis. Yap has never set foot in China, but she is Chinese. What does it mean to be Singaporean? Its British colonial past, and its present place as one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan city-states makes Singapore a melting pot of cultures, similar to London, but with one difference. Londoners are proudly from everywhere on the planet, but Singaporeans are only from Singapore.