Reawakening Tragedy For Healing: A Review of SURAT-SURATNYA and MAY 1998

Two plays. Two monologues. Two real stories. One truth; corrupt governments can no longer hide their sins, and memory and healing can only be done when we face the luka (luka=wound).


Content Warning: Death, kidnapping, police brutality, racism, sexual assault, violence

“Sayur Lodeh… it is a dish that will ward off evil.”

-Ellen Marning, Surat-Suratnya, La Mama HQ

Two plays. Two monologues. Two real stories. One truth; corrupt governments can no longer hide their sins, and memory and healing can only be done when we face the luka (luka=wound).

Surat-Suratnya begins and ends in the kitchen-dining room of Ibu (Ibu being an Indonesian honorific title for an elder woman) Helen – a real Australian woman who lived in Indonesia (1965-67) – cooking Sayur Lodeh for her family on their last night before they flee forever. Suharto’s 32-year reign has begun, Sukarno is imprisoned. A great terror has begun, and people begin to disappear. Her Indonesian husband – a faithful trade unionist and member of the Communist Party – is talked about at length during the play, and the constant fear and anxiety that at any point he could disappear too, along with the other 100,000 political enemies, is explored.

Ibu Helen talks to the audience like we are having an open, but very private and solemn conversation over the dining table as she prepares dinner. We feel joy when she describes her children. We mourn for the unnamed communist party journalist and her wife who disappear after seeking shelter again and again and again–until the state gives them a final resting ground, along with the three million others who “disappeared.”

And then suddenly, periodically, we are broken from the terrifying story Ibu Helen is sharing with us across the table, and she explains to us what Sayur Lodeh is, the Javanese meaning behind each vegetable, and how it all comes together to create the “dish that will ward off evil.” The lights shift to blue, Ibu Helen falls silent, then these bits of mythos are repeated by Kurnia Eka Fajarin in Javanese verse, who plays contemporary gamelan music with a brass saron and a powerful gong.

But Ibu Helen muses soberly if the dish is what protects her husband from prison, or the fact she is an Australian citizen. Meanwhile, the whole play is given a very real sense of progression and homeliness as the Sayur Lodeh cooks behind a curtain to the left – where a delightful nod to Javanese shadow-puppetry takes place – and the smell (the smell!) fills the theatre room and makes me excited for her to set the table and fill the bowls. A light chilli whiff, the muteness of eggplant, the strong aroma of bay leaves and the smell of rice that has absorbed all the flavours successfully. Finally, dinner is ready, she calls her family to the table, and the lights go down. I had the great pleasure to use one of the bowls and try just a bit of this meal I had just learnt so much about. I felt so connected to it, and in eating that dish I felt wholeheartedly like this story happened. I was eating a meal Ibu Helen and millions of others had made during the Purge; who had eaten as their last meal; who had hoped it would protect them from a violent oppressive regime that was attacking freedom of thought, speech and belief. Now it was time to delve into the minds of the creators of this sublimely told story.

In the crafting process, loyalty to the source material and respect for Ibu Helen’s story was at the centrepoint. Wawan Sofwan (director) told me how he pored over “60-70 letters written between 1965-67, transcribed and translated them, then selected certain areas.” He found the beginning of these events – “Some generals (being) turned into satay” – which kicked off the Communist Purge, and the end: Ibu Helen actually cooking on their last night in Indonesia. “Then I just had to sort out what to do in the middle!” he said.

Much of the script is pulled straight from the letters. In the pre-show installation, Between the Letters, tucked into a room at La Mama HQ, I read a letter that stated how a certain wooden teapot “makes the tea taste more pleasurable.” I heard the exact same line in the play! Wawan, Sandra Fiona Long (dramaturg/translator) and I all shared a laugh over that detail. Sandra assured me that Ibu Helen had been involved every step of the way. “She and Ria read every draft, and were always sought out for approval of how her story was being told – that was really important to us.”

Ria Soemardjo (Ibu Helen’s daughter) corroborates this on Grapevine: “Ibu Helen chose to hand the letters over,” which is a remarkable act of bravery because as Ria later points out, this is a story of “horrific events,” and so many who experienced it still refuse to face the trauma it inflicted. Ria also highlights why herself and her mother were less involved in the creation of this play. Why was this true, tragic and titanic story not told by them?

“It really was just too much for me, and I was so grateful when Wawan Sofwan – a really respected director and actor in Indonesia – heard about my mum’s letters, read them and was interested to write a monologue based on that. I stepped back from any creative decisions in that cause it’s a huge story.”

It is a huge story, told from the tiny domains of a loving house, from a single individual out of many, and remains remarkably powerful. The specific and individual nature of the play did nothing to harm the message of the play; to everything there is a season, and the season of truth and healing and hopefully justice has arrived.


“You are here to listen. I am here to talk.”

-Victoria Wanata, May 1998, Motley Bauhaus

May 1998 begins and ends in a fractured dining room that looks more like a collection of nightmares floating over shattered floorboards than any real place. Additionally, the storyteller in May is not real the same way Ellen Marning’s character is. Victoria explains in an interview on Grapevine:

“She is known as “I”, because… this is an account inspired by personal accounts, stories that I’ve  read, conversations that I’ve had. Ultimately, it’s like a fictionalised account that isn’t about any particular type of individual who I am trying to portray, and the reason why is because then she can be anybody.”

May went for the universal relatability approach because Victoria was not after a way to create a chronological story of the May riots but, in her own words on Grapevine, tell a story that explores a lot of different stories at once:

“So many horrible things happened to so many women during these riots, and so many people lived through this, I cannot possibly tell an individual story because everyone’s was different, complex, and personal.”

There’s a lot of heart and empathy in that statement, and that’s what May 1998 strives to elicit from the audience with a raw, tender, insightful, critical and abstract monologue. Victoria adds “I feel like any human being should be able to empathise with the type of sufferings (in May 1998) and also the type of kindness, humanity and love that’s been put into (May and Surat) to realise them as universal stories.”

What are those stories? Statistically, these stories are the riots across May 1998 that resulted in 1,000 estimated dead, 168 cases of rape, and Rp 3.1 trillion in damages. It is the fallout of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis that directly led to food shortages and mass unemployment. On 19th August, 1998, it is the denial of revealed rape photos as being genuine, and preventing the justice and reconciliation the rape victims of the riots desperately deserve. That’s who “I” symbolises. I was pointed in the direction of an artistic animated series of interviews called Chinese Whispers. This provided deeper understanding for just who “I” was representing.



Narrator: “May 1998… caused a fracture in my identity.”

Ibu Dewi Anggraeni: “I heard about the rapes. The mass rapes. It was so horrific, I didn’t believe it because I thought… it was just too horrific, too horrible, too cruel… until one day a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to meet a rape victim… As a journalist I wanted to know. But my friend said, “you will not come as a journalist. You will come as a human being.”

Karlina Supelli: “I remember a family with… three children… they raped the mother first in front of the children, and gang-raped, yeah… they also raped the children, the girls and based on witness… I can’t remember. One or two of the girls were thrown into the fire.”

Fifi: “I don’t speak to the Tiko (derogatory name for native Indonesians) anymore after May 1998–halfies or chinese or whatever. They’ve created an “us” and “them”.”

-An excerpt from May 1998


That is what May 1998 seeks to show the world, and reshow the Indonesian community of Melbourne who, understandably but regrettably, don’t want to be reminded. The poet Mark Gonzalez is quoted in the animated series, “we cannot heal what we cannot face.”

Neither of these plays were overtly political, but far more interested in firmly placing the events of 1965 and 1998 back into the wider conscience of the Indonesian community and Australians generally. I asked them both separately, what do you want the audience to get from the words? Wawan simply and resolutely said “memory… people must know.”

Victoria said “memory, remembering, healing – I need to talk about this because I have to. We use the word luka in Indonesia frequently. We can learn to heal by facing the wound, luka.”

The unfolding of May 1998 was abstract, experimental, and punchy; all largely put together by a competent team of young artists fresh out of university or still in it but complemented by the presence of some more experienced theatre experts for lighting and sound. The play was transformed by phases of different lighting: purple, gold and red. Purple was often nostalgic moments of canonical Indonesian literature (‘Aku' by Chairil Anwar, 'Manusia Pertama di Angkasa Luar' by Soebagio Sastrowardoyo, and 'Doa' by Sapardi Djoko Damono). Gold were the happier, more optimistic moments, and the struggle to push on through the pain. Red was the rage and the pain of memory, and the repressed trauma of so many lives.

The set harked to the poetry on large manuscripts hanging from either side of the stage and set the context of the play physically and metaphorically between signage and artefacts from May 1998 and the Reformasi that followed. But there was not a lot of engagement with the vibrant, thoughtful set pieces. In the Q&A that followed (where I was able to chat to a journalist who documented May 1998, Bela Kusumah, and Siauw Tiong Djin, who experienced both 1965 and 1998), the director Acacia Nettleton mentioned how they didn’t want to overblock the play and let the truth and rawness of the words be as unfiltered as possible. But the lack of blocking led to a lack of physical movement, of engagement with the stage, and of bodily energy carrying the words to us. The play was more static than it perhaps needed to be. This didn’t harm the message of the play, but it made it hard to concentrate in combination with the small theatre space warming up from bodies and heat-lights.

Constructive feedback aside, it is a solid telling of a collection of true stories that are swept under the rug in Indonesia, and very difficult to face with the expat community here. But when I asked Victoria what she believed the power of art – and by extension this play – had in healing intergenerational trauma, and convincing people to accept the truth, she said this:

“The play humanises the people and creates a subjective space that allows experimentation with material, but also allows you to get closer to the truth. It brings generations closer together… My mother is obsessed with everything in the house being locked. I didn’t understand it until I started reading about May 1998 and suddenly it became clear. The fear doesn’t go away. My mother still advises me to be cautious when talking to Indonesians.”

The trauma of May 1998 has stretched beyond Victoria’s mother and into her upbringing. The shadow of hurt, pain, distrust and paranoia brought on by a corrupt government still affects her, so far away from where and when it happened. Tiong Djin adds:

“Plays like this are good because reminders of historical perspective are far more effective than political speeches or policy in a highly political country (like Indonesia); they are more accepting.”

Bela Sukumah highlights to me how the younger generation has forgotten because Indonesia does not teach it, placing all the greater importance upon the arts to spread the word and keep the memory alive. When memories of tragedy and crises disappear, they happen again. History is doomed to repeat itself in large part because people forget. So why might you only be reading about this now? It’s because the crimes committed in 1965 and 1998 have remained widely unacknowledged by both Indonesian society and the government. With the Indonesian elections currently underway, the presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto is one of many perpetrators who have gone unpunished, his crimes forgotten. May 1998 and Surat-Suratnya push back against passing into obscurity and fight to reawaken the consciousness among those it affected so tragically, and enlisting the aid of those who can help (that’s us, the audience), in spreading the truth as best we can.

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition One 2024


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