Flip The Script Friday: Stella Kon, Emily of Emerald Hill

It’s Friday, and you know what that means – time to flip that script!

I know you’ve been reading a lot here lately on Stella Kon, but it’s only because I have just about everything of hers out from the library right now, and since I wanted to return them all today, I read all the ones I hadn’t gotten to yet. The only ones which I thought were worth talking about here were Butterflies Don’t Cry (which will appear here…but not anytime soon) and Kon’s one-woman tour-de-force, Emily of Emerald Hill.

Basics:

Written in 1982 and first performed in Malaysia in 1984. Leow Puay Tin played Emily. Its Singapore premiere came in September 1985, with Margaret Chan as Emily. She was seven months pregnant at the time, which is pretty incredible. Since then, it has become Singapore’s most widely-performed play, and has been seen in other countries as well. According to the play text, Leow and Chan pretty much switched off the role throughout the 1980s.

Character:

  • Emily Gan – It’s just her, and everyone else is secondary 🙂 no, really, she spends the majority of the play talking to other people, none of whom are on stage. She is in her mid thirties and wears a traditional kebaya as well as bangles and other jewelry. She does not portray any other characters, but goes back and forth through time, from being a young wife/mother to being a grandmother.

Setting/Plot

1950s, Singapore. At the outset, Emily is making phone calls to various people, arranging her son Richard’s birthday party. As she prepares, she tells of the history of her home, a mansion on Emerald Hill where she lives with her husband, children, and an assortment of family members. After the party, we jump forward in time to Richard leaving for university in England. Against Emily’s wishes, he decides to work as a stable hand instead, and the first act ends when Emily finds out he has committed suicide in England. The second act begins with Emily in mourning for her son, growing irritable, and then going back in time to when her son was even younger. She flashes forward and cooks her favorite meal while telling us, Rachael Ray-style, exactly what she is doing and how. As she chops and cooks, she reveals the imperfections of her life; a cheating husband, and her other two sons, Charles and Edward, growing up and leaving Emerald Hill to start their own lives and families, and of her daughter Doris, whom she intends to keep at Emerald Hill, even if she should get married. Doris ends up going to visit family in America, and stays there, abandoning her aging mother. Even though she’s been alone onstage the whole time, we watch her world get smaller, as her home slowly erodes around her.

My Thoughts

This is definitely a very site-specific play, and I think I would appreciate it more having grown up or lived in Singapore. Still, it provides a good glimpse into the life of a fictional but very interesting lady, a wife and mother, who is often pushed aside but has her own story to tell. The right actress could pull off an incredible transformation, taking Emily from a young and vibrant socialite to an antique, much like the mother-of-pearl furniture she treasures. Other plays/characters that come to mind are Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, or Betty in Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, both of whom represent a person who stays the same despite the drastic changes that occur around them, becoming a relic without really doing that much themselves.

How I’d Flip It

Oddly, I think that I would love to play the role of Emily. It’s been performed by male actors before, and even though I’ve never imagined myself in drag, she just seems so frozen in time that playing her would be like being a theatrical cryogenic technician, only instead of defrosting Walt Disney or Ted Williams, some random person from another place and time emerges. I’d also love to do it in a place where the lighting could start off bright, with lots of shadows for Emily to navigate through, and then get dimmer until Emily can only move around her chair, while at the same time, the lighting on the rest of the stage (maybe in a blue or green) gets brighter, so we can see the set, which has actually been really dingy this whole time, despite Emily’s vitality. Of course, Emily would be in pink, but everything else on the set would be in duller browns, grays, and tans, so she could stand out. I can’t decide whether a thrust or proscenium would be the best option, but I think a thrust might be really interesting. I think the biggest challenge of this play is to make the audience really care about Emily, despite probably being alien to her history and her way of life before entering the theatre; rather than making it campy, it should almost be like she’s a flower in her own little greenhouse of history, which is great because in one of her final monologues, she mentions that her gardener crossbred a flower and named it for her.

Works Cited:

Kon, Stella. Emily of Emerald Hill. Singapore: Macmillan, 1989. Print.

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