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Theater Troupe ‘Teater Koma’ Still Raging Against the Regime

When Suharto stepped down in 1998, Teater Koma — a theater company that often performed a veiled crusade against his government — saw the news as both a victory and a challenge.

With its main antagonist out of the picture, what would that mean for Teater Koma? Was it time to turn in a new direction or just celebrate and rest?

“We were actually grateful for Suharto as he was a respectable enemy,” said Nano Riantiarno, the founder of the troupe, in his house-turned-studio in Bintaro, South Jakarta.

Sitting next to him, his wife and Teater Koma’s production manager, Ratna Riantiarno, echoed that sentiment.

“It was fun to have an enemy,” Ratna said, reminiscing.

“Even though Suharto was a dictator, he was our source of inspiration.”

Teater Koma was founded in 1977, at the height of Suharto’s New Order regime, when creative voices were being muzzled by censorship.

Nano — who wrote all 116 of the company’s productions — often used elliptical story lines and the cover provided by songs, dances and costumes to make subtle jabs at the New Order, and he continues to critique those in high places today.

Wearing a black T-shirt and black cargo pants, Nano, who was born in Cirebon, West Java, took a philosophical approach when discussing his troupe’s post-Suharto focus.

“The main enemy of humanity is greed, something that the leaders, the government, are more susceptible to,” he said.

“The greed that existed in the New Order era has emerged again in the succeeding regime. The packaging may be different, but the core issues are the same.”

Teater Koma’s 117th production, set to be staged in February, is once again strongly critical of the government.

The theater piece, is named for and based on the story of Sie Jin Kwie, a soldier whose heroic deeds are overshadowed by a corrupt military chief, who is a favorite of the king.

“[Sie Jin Kwie] is about patriotism, something that many of us no longer consider important,” Nano said.

“A lot of people cannot advance in their careers, just because they don’t want to be complicit in [government activity],” he said.

In January, Teater Koma staged “Republik Petruk” — the last instalment in its wayang-inspired republic trilogy — at the Taman Ismail Marzuki arts complex in Central Jakarta.

The story centers around the character of Petruk, who conquers the kingdom of Lojitengara using a misappropriated tailsman.

Under Petruk’s rule, the kingdom undergoes a series of reforms. But despite the changes, the kingdom’s rulers continue to behave in an immoral way and corruption reaches unprecedented levels.

Bandung-based theater critic Silvester Petara Hurit reviewed the play in the January edition of arts and culture magazine Gong, writing that “Republik Petruk” raises the problem of “Indonesian leaders in the past 10 years”.

The play highlights problems such as rampant police corruption, as alluded to in the line: “We reported to the police on our lost chicken, we lost our lamb instead.”

It also talks about how the government allows foreigners to take over the country’s assets.

Silvester argued that the play was meant to send a message prior to the presidential election in July this year.

“Don’t choose someone like Petruk, who will become just a clown,” he wrote, quoting from the play.

“Especially not someone who is indebted to the person from whom they borrowed their campaign funds.”

Critics have said that the first two instalments of the republic trilogy also contained messages directed against the government.

“Republik Bagong,” staged in 2001, was perceived by critics as a spoof on the struggle of power during the transitional period from the New Order to the Reformation era, while “Republik Togog” staged four years later, “talks about the hypocrisy of the country’s leaders, and their failure to fulfill their promises to the people,” Nano said. Dindon WS, the founder of Teater Kubur and a member of the Jakarta Arts Council, said Teater Koma had not changed significantly over the years but its targets had become more general since the fall of Suharto.

For a production to be approved under the New Order, Nano had to attain signatures of 12 different government authority figures. Members of the troupe were routinely interrogated by the police and the Army, and were aware of intelligence agents waiting in the wings at performances.

In the late 1990s, “Suksesi” (“Succession”), which many interpreted as a satire on the power struggle among Suharto’s children, was banned on the 11th day of its scheduled 14-day run.

The second run of “Opera Kecoa” (“Cockroach Opera”) in December that same year was also cancelled, and the group was refused the travel documents it needed to perform by invitation for the Japan Foundation in Japan the following year.

Ratna said the group embraced such scrutiny as a blessing in disguise. “It was like free publicity for us,” she said. “The police made us famous.”

But one particular incident shook the group to its core.

In August 1985, the group performed “Opera Kecoa,” about the lives of prostitutes, scavengers, transvestites and other habitants of the slums, at the Rumentang Siang building in Bandung, West Java.

On the morning of the show, the building management received a phone call saying that a bomb had been planted inside the building.

Nano reported the threat to police, who sent in the bomb squad. No bomb was found, Teater Koma went on with the show and the caller was never identified.

These days, life is no longer as risky for the group.

In 2001, Nano and company performed “Republik Bagong,” in which Bagong, similar to Petruk, assumes power only to find his supporters have abandoned him.

Australian scholar Helen Pausacker wrote in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies in 2004 that Bagong is a portrayal of former President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid. “This play was performed two months before Gus Dur was forced to resign and reflected the spirit of the times,” she wrote.

What was interesting was that Gus Dur actually attended one of the shows, “laughing and applauding at the send-up of himself,” as documented by Pausacker — something that would never have happened under the New Order regime.

But the lack of reaction by the government does not mean Teater Koma is no longer relevant, Nano said.

In July 2003, at the Jakarta Arts Building, Teater Koma performed “Opera Kecoa” before the public for the first time since the 1985 bomb scare and a subsequent 1990 ban on performing the piece.

“I was expecting that nobody would watch the show as it talks about corruption, eviction, injustice and bribery,” Nano said. “It turned out that there were always full houses. They could still relate to all the things raised in the play, which they believe still exist around them.”

Nano said that this was a testament that, even with the advent of the reformation era, people are still unsatisfied with the government.

The 60-year-old father of two said that there might never be another figure as influential as Suharto in Indonesia, “but when you combine Suharto-like acts done by other leaders in this country, those are enough for us [to use] as sources of inspiration.”

“Greed is our enemy, and it will never die,” he said. “Only when it does will I write about the stones and the wind.”

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