As long as institutions have been in existence, there are always good people who are let down due to bureaucracy, politics, incompetence, or some other hodgepodge of factors in between. But humanitarian aid organisations? They’re not so different either, as we learn from the latest work by Singapore’s critically-acclaimed Checkpoint Theatre. Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner is a powerful new play about humanitarian workers caught in the crosshairs of a crisis — the backdrop of choice for playwright Huzir Sulaiman and director Claire Wong as they investigates the realities of the aid industry.
We often hear the words “refugees” and “disaster relief”, but how much do we really know about that world? What could go wrong, in a setting where the worst and best of humankind intersect?
As it turns out, a lot actually. The Organisation for Emergency Assistance (OEA) is a fictional body involved in an aid mission in a country torn apart by civil conflict, told through the lens of the seven international staff stationed there. Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner is as much about the everyday lives of aid workers as it is an investigation of the industry’s realities.
Emil Marwa plays the British camp director Mike Miller, who struggles to find the balance between being an authoritarian figure and a man with his own personal problems. He’s helped by Angela Ling (Jo Tan), who’s responsible for allocating limited resources where they’re most needed. She sees the big picture but tends to get bogged down by the needs of her staff, and Tan shines most when her character has to make tough decisions — including being away from her dementia-stricken mother back in safe and sunny Singapore.
Dawn Cheong is Sara Chiu, the Gender Programme Officer who implements initiatives policies to protect people — mostly women — from unjust systems, though she later become a victim of the very system after being sexually assaulted by a trusted mentor. She might have been given the most emotional legwork, but she executes it like a champ. Starring alongside her is Cheryl Chitty Tan’s Katy Tran, the daughter of an OEA big shot who chooses to work in the Hygiene programme to avoid accusations of nepotism. Tan convincing portrayed the smart but cocky girl, capturing her naivety with a confident charm.
As we delved into the backstories of the international staff, we learn how easy it is to be derailed by our own humanity. No one is absolutely good or absolutely bad, especially when you’re trying to do difficult and important things. Tim Rodriguez (Brendon Fernandez) is the camp’s security consultant as well as a former US Army veteran whose past threatens to catch up with him, and the toll it takes on him is apparent. Despite his desire to do good, his stern military training and attitude often puts him at odds with his civilian colleagues.
The show would not be as impactful as it was without the brilliant score by .gif, the local indie-electronic act that’s quickly become one of Singapore’s favourite music duos. Their dark sound, a mixture of noise and discord, is rich and layered. It connects intimately with the text and Lim Woan Wen’s dramatic lighting: mysterious at times and harrowing at others, like in the investigation scene when the international staff are questioned by Irani’s Shirin Mistry, the OEA’s head of HR.
For all the build-up towards the namesake dinner — a publicity stunt involving displaced persons making a welcome dinner for Gwyneth Paltrow, it never actually happens. Instead, one of the characters gets raped and another gets kidnapped by insurgents. Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner shows the possibilities that emerge when man’s violence and cruelty is juxtaposed against courageous acts of compassion. When the work ends, you’ll leave the theatre wondering about your complicity in an unjust world and what we can do better for one another. After all, you’re probably heading back to power plays and damned bureaucracy in the office the next morning.