Jamilia dan Sang Presiden (Jamilia and the President)

29 July, 2006

Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s and up until now, the form of literarture that has been at the forefront of art’s role in political and social renewal has been drama. The playwright Rendra has played the most important role acting as the vanguard of socially and politically committed art in the 1970s at a time when it had been suppressed and was almost non-existent. The price he paid for reviving committed poetry and theatre in defiance of state policy suppressing that kind of arts was almost one year in gaol without trial in 1978. His pioneering work of that period included Mastadon dan Burung Kondor, Kisah Perjuangan Suku Naga and Sekda. (His Indonesian adaptation of Lysistrata was also a masterpiece of comic satire.) His poems Pamflet Penyair (A Poet’s Pamphlets), also published as Portret Pembangunan dalam Puisi (A Portrait of Development in Poetry) was the poetic supplement to these works. These works, combined with Rendra’s politico-literary praxis, acted together as not just the vanguard of socio-politically committed art, but as the vanguard of public opposition to the New Order dictatorship itself after the suppression of the student movement in 1974. Rendra has remained a prolific writer of drama, and especially poetry. He retains a large constituency of supporters and fans. See Rendra website

 Other prominent theatre artist who ran afoul of the New Order dictatorship, was Nano Riantarno who produced a number of political plays, most well known being Suksesi (Succession) and Opera Kecoa (Cockroach Opera).

 But there have been many others, including those who have introduced satire into traditional theatre or traditional comic performance.

 Jamilia dan Sang Presiden (Jamilia and the President)

Last week, we went and saw Jamilia and the President written and directed by Ratna Sarumpaet and performed by the theatre group she leads Satu Merah Panggung. The play was being performed for four nights before the group was to move on to Surabaya, Medan, Bandung and Palembang. The play was commissioned by UNICEF as part of its support for public campaigning against the trafficking in women.

 Since the early 1990s, Ratna Sarumpaet has emerged as one of the most prominent social critics among artists. She has also just finished a period as head of the Jakarta Arts Council.

 In recent time her plays have covered the topics of the repression of women labour activists, the situation in Aceh, and the victims of the 1965 anti-left repression.

 Jamilia and the President was very well acted and very well staged. Satu Merah Panggung has obviously developed as a professional and artistic theatre group.

 The political depth of the text, however, was disappointing, despite the play being a strong and form statement of condemnation of social hypocricy. There was little comprehensible story to tell us about the fate of Jamilia, a young women sold into prostitution and who at some point and for some reason killed a cabinet minister, was tired and sentenced to death. Why, how, and how she developed in that direction is absent, subdued by a series of set-piece scenes where different characters, in a very declamatory form, make their critiques or condemnations, or act out well-known stereotypes.

 We are left with little more than everybody already knows, namely, that some poor women can be forced into prostitution and that many “community”, and especially religious, leaders old hypocritical views about these women. Sometimes a woman may driven to kill (although exactly how this happens seems to remain posed as a logical outcome of the general situation rather than as the result of a specific person’s journey. It is rare that a prostitute kills a cabinet minister, or anybody for that matter. Such an event cannot be simply read as the inevitable outcome of the general situation.

 The heroine, Jamilia, is depicted as a strong personality, not a defeated, cowed victim, but she is strong only in her angry bitterness, not in any other respect. In this way, she is returned to the state of a victim.

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