My, What Sharp Teeth You Have: An Underdog Story

Guest Article by Jordan Holliday
University of Chicago
“She’s 29 year-old womaaan,” the troubadour at center stage sang out, his head thrown back and eyes shut, as if in lamentation. “No man wants to take her as his wife, unless he wants a miserable life.”
The troubador, Fakril, paused for effect—the characters around him on stage crept closer—and then resumed, with fists clenched in the manner of a 1980s power balladeer: “It’s because she’s messy and filthyyy, you will die from the smell of…”
“Stop, stop!” I broke in, cutting off the troubadour’s song. This had to be fixed before our rehearsal went any further. “Fakril, say ‘She’s a 29 year-old woman.’ You forgot the indefinite article. But everything else was great.”
I sat back in the director’s chair and listened as Fakril took up the tune again and delved further into the hygienic failings of our play’s title character, Little Red Riding Hood.
Though the name of the musical was familiar to me, that was the only part of the production I recognized from my own days in grade school. Maybe the Brothers Grimm forgot the part about Red Riding Hood being an insolent litterbug staring down age 30 and a lonely spinsterhood unless she cleaned up her act and found a good man pronto. Perhaps my third-grade teacher skipped over the passage about the Big Bad Wolf marrying Red Riding Hood’s widowed grandmother, so that Red would have a strong paternal figure in her life.
A talking tree confronts Red Riding Hood for littering in the forest
No doubt this retelling of Red Riding Hood packed a Stepfordian wallop absent from the most versions of the classic tale, but once on stage, our play raised eyebrows not with its politics, but with the charm of the actors, the ingenuity of the prop work, and the way it conveyed the magic of the fairytale. In only three weeks, the students took a 25-page script and turned it into a championship caliber production—and they and I have the trophies to prove it.
Before going any further, some context: I teach at SMK Tengku Ibrahim, or “TipTop” to students and faculty, in Permaisuri, Terengganu. My students range from 13-year-olds barely taller than my waist to 19-year-old Form Six students only months from entering university. Their goals are as diverse as Malaysian society itself: There are many who hope to study medicine or engineering in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, or the United Kingdom, and some who tell me their career plans stop at the oil palm plantations that surround this small town.
TipTop isn’t nearly the worst school in Setiu district—40 percent of the student in each form are in advanced classes—but it isn’t the best either, and all of the best schools would be at the district drama competition for which we were preparing. Historically, that hadn’t boded well us. In 2011, TipTop finished dead last.
The other teacher directing this year’s play, Mr. Ahmad Lokman, was determined that would not happen again. More than a month before the competition, Mr. Lokman was visiting classes to recruit students for the cast and crew, and rehearsals began in earnest three weeks out. I helped paint scenery, gave notes on the performances, and worked with the actors to improve their grammar and pronunciation, which count for a large portion of the final score in English drama competition.
The students worked on the play five days a week, during lunch breaks and after school. They knew they were at a disadvantage against the local elite schools, whose students mostly live in dormitories and could practice together late into the night. That wasn’t an option for many of our students, so they wanted to start rehearsing early and squeeze in every possible minute.
And gradually, as five dry runs through the play turned into ten and then thirty, our Little Red Riding Hood was transformed from a series of missed cues and forgotten lines into a impressively polished production. There were moments, like when Red and her grandmother have a wordless cooking/dancing/drawing/boxing competition to determine who is the more suitable bride (just trust me on this), that would have been at home on a much larger stage, in front of a paying audience. Overall, the play was very good, the students’ effort evident in every scene.
Still, on competition day in mid-April, as we made our way to SMA Setiu, a religious school that was site of this year’s drama showcase, there was no shaking the memories of years past, when TipTop’s drama teams were shown up by the better prepared elite schools. Our actors, generally an outgoing bunch, were unusually quiet that morning, and since we were slated to perform last, our nervousness—I was feeling nervous on the actors’ behalf—would be drawn out as long as possible.
At least it would be for the students, who had been sequestered behind the auditorium by Mr. Lokman, instructed to practice their lines and pay no mind to the other schools’ shows. But I was inside, watching everything from the front row, and with each school that dropped the curtains and took a bow, I grew more convinced that this was TipTop’s year. Even though the other plays were well done, I knew that if our students performed as they had in rehearsal, TipTop would be the champions of Setiu district. When our turn came and my students began taking the stage, I reminded them to speak loudly, and wished them luck.
They didn’t need it. After weeks of work, all the blocking, scene changes, and singing came together seamlessly on stage. Fakril called Red Riding Hood “a 29-year-old woman,” Red’s worried mother implored God to make “her change,” not “she change,” and the fairy-dust-glitter that blessed the union of Grandmother and Big Bad Wold twinkled down from the rafters at exactly the right moment.
 Red faints after her grandmother (center, in purple) reveals she has married the Big Bad Wolf
It seemed almost flawless, and for all the nerves I felt before the performance, there were none when the judges adjourned to tally the scores. We’d won easily, and it felt like only a formality when the emcee called out “TipTop Juara!” and the students rushed back on stage to collect their championship trophies.
As for me, I was of course immensely proud of my students, and though I’ll always prefer a more traditional rendition of Red Riding Hood, any misgivings I had about our play’s message were put to rest while talking to the students outside the auditorium, after they got their trophies. While working on the script a month prior, I’d been tempted to tone down the scorn heaped on Red Riding Hood, maybe throw in a line about marriage not being the absolute fulfillment of a woman’s potential on earth, but I realized how completely I missed the point when one of the fairies approached me, trophy in hand, and started telling me how worried she was before the day’s performance.
“I think we would lost and an elite school would win,” she said. “Now I see TipTop can win Setiu district, and I think we can win Terengganu also.” I told her I agreed, and it struck me that this girl, dressed in all pink everything with fairy wings and a halo, had just spelled out the real moral of our story.
ETA Jordan Holliday with the cast and crew
 

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