What Makes A Man A Man

It was either last year or the year before, Selena Tan and I sat in the Esplanade Theatre, as the audience shuffled in at the opening show of Kumar’s Amazing Race.

Looking around and up at the circle seats, she marveled – “Look at that. Filling up the entire theatre. He’s simply amazing”.

The Esplanade Theatre holds 1,942 seats to be exact, and for four years running, Kumar’s shows (produced by Dream Academy) at the venue have been completely sold out. This year’s looking the same – people started buying the tickets as soon as they’re put on sale – and that was two months ago.

Kumar’s probably the only local act unaffected by the deluge of imported shows fighting for a share of audiences’ entertainment budget. Even with Russell Peters (another completely sold-out act) playing two nights before opening, the seven-show run is still sold out.

Kumar is himself amazed at how much of a drawcard he is. I know that the now annual “big” show Dream Academy produces for him is something he really looks forward to working on – it shows in the energy he’s been bringing to script meetings and rehearsals – and it still always amuses me how much joy he gets in asking the administrative staff whether the shows are sold out or not.

Just last week, he interrupted me mid-sentence to inform me officiously that he “heard that Thursday Friday Saturday all sold out you know? I want to get tickets for my friends also cannot”.

I first watched Kumar in 1992, when he first started performing at The Boom Boom Room. I was on uni holidays, and my friends had told me we had to watch this amazing drag act.

I was terrified, because he was picking on the audience and insulting them and leaving the entire room in stitches. I didn’t get picked on, but a couple of guys sitting near the front bore the brunt of his taunts at being slow to get a joke because they were “from Johor”. He was also rattling off, deadpan, one-liners that I remember till today. One of them was:

“I used to work in a sperm bank, but they fired me because I was drinking on the job”.

I slipped it into the script for this week’s show to see if he remembered. He did, looked worried, and said “Oh my god, Ben, that’s such an old joke, please take it out”, and somehow my little anecdote of how it was the one joke I remember from the first time I saw him didn’t have the intended effect of knowing nods, smiles and warm hugs all round.

In December 2008, Dream Academy telephoned and asked what my time was like for January and February 2009, and whether I would like to have a go at writing for Kumar in a new solo stand up show called “Kumar: Stripped Bare & Standing Up”. The writer previously engaged by the company was tied up in television projects.

The flyer and photoshoot images were emailed to me and I spent the next few months watching Kumar at Hard Rock Cafe and Three Monkeys and having coffee and chatting about everything he wanted to talk about – homophobia, xenophobia and how much he hated putting on make-up for every show.

It was difficult gleaning anything useful from those first meetings, and I know now that he was putting up his “interview face” during those sessions. He was always serious, always looking to make a point, sometimes confabulating in order to do so. There were recollections of the childhood sexual assault, the adoptive stepmother and the abusive father, all vivid and hazy at the same time. It made good material for a black box monologue, but not for an hour’s worth of stand-up.

The other thing that came up often in conversation when people found out I had been asked to write for Kumar was “how’s it like working with him? Is he as bitchy as people say he is?”

Over the past five shows and four years, the only times I witnessed anything close to bitchiness was when he was on the phone with other producers/event planners/television production companies, and it was always about bad planning on their part.

I think I have a great working groove with Kumar, and I’m grateful for it. What Kumar has taught me about life and work has also been immense.

George Chan, the director of What Makes A Man A Man, emailed me something about how people leave a drag show feeling energized and good about themselves, because drag queens show what it’s like to have the courage to be themselves.

For Kumar, being himself is an interesting dichotomy. There is Kumar in full drag regalia on stage, fierce as anything, poking fun at anything with a comic timing unparalleled. Then there is the Kumar who is the 40+ year old uncle who comes to rehearsal buying enough food from Breadtalk to last a week, complete with a story of how he scolded an expat for cutting the queue (which we embellished into a segment in last year’s show).

Both Kumars are anomalies. And to live two lives less ordinary is really remarkable.

Thank you Kumar for showing the way.

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