The latest instalment of Drama Box's ongoing IgnorLAND series might very well be subtitled "A Eulogy for Dakota Crescent". It's an atmospheric, meditative piece where the location is the obvious star of the show, bringing the audience on several routes on a 2.5-hour walk through the nearly 60-year-old estate, its cosy, low-rise rental flats something of an anomaly against a backdrop of rising condominiums. Walking through the crumbly apartment buildings, however, I also felt a strong sense of deja vu, that once again we had arrived too late, done too little – that we were, yet again, holding a funeral for a place we didn't even have time to mourn.
This isn't the first time that Drama Box, or artists in Singapore for that matter, have created productions that focus on the perennial struggle between the old and the new. We are obsessed with this push and pull, perhaps because it renders us so helpless. I attended an art and photography exhibition held in the void decks of the colourful Rochor Centre last year before it went under the chopping block; there was another artist takeover at Eminent Plaza, a building in a similar situation, in 2014. What I find uncomfortable is that often – not always, but often – artists only seem to come in when the decision has already been made. We pay for destroyed spaces with the currency of nostalgia, and nostalgia has its limits.
Drama Box broke this trend last year with its three-part It Won't Be Too Long series that involved both a show at Bukit Brown Cemetery and one in Toa Payoh Central. It gave audience members a stake in what might happen in the future, when we are called on to decide which spaces to keep and which to discard. (It also helped that we were voting on these spaces during the weekend of the General Election, which added to the urgency.) It also documented the fight for Bukit Brown, where activists all over Singapore rallied together as best as they could to preserve the municipal cemetery. The fight was lost, but not for any lack of trying.
But who will speak up for Dakota? In IgnorLAND, the residents are the performers. One of them, Billy, who has lived in the estate for 50 years, brings us on a tour of his small second-floor apartment, crowded with thriving plants and curious knick-knacks. Another, a volunteer at the eldercare centre, is disappointed that their VWO will not be able to continue their work with residents when they've been relocated (another VWO will take their place). IgnorLAND is as much for the audience members as it is for the Dakota residents, a production that allows them to at least share their grief with the public. But there seemed to be an overarching resignation to their performances, an undercurrent of bitterness I couldn't shake.
Drama Box tries to up the stakes we have in the estate as we wander through these buildings, paint little wooden rectangles and paste them on miniature recreations of the Dakota Crescent blocks. They make splendid use of a block of flats for an opening scene and a lovely green spot by the Geylang River for a closing scene. But it's really not enough. We see the work that has gone into this project – painstaking little dioramas by students and children, a complex "cat playground" for the dozens of affectionate, head-scratch-and-belly-rub-loving felines in the estate (what happens to them when all the residents leave??). But still our link to the estate feels observational, tenuous. I can appreciate the production as a period of tireless engagement with the Dakota community, an acknowledgement of the overlooked residents who have to vacate the premises after several long decades. And on that level, perhaps the production is enough, or even more than what they might have expected to receive. But I think shows like these have the potential to move beyond sympathy to empathy. We shouldn't just feel sad, or resigned, when we leave – else we will continue to lose more of a country that is less and less our own.
The final scene is a lovely tribute to Dakota residents: beautiful large-format photo portraits projected on a building wall. After the show, as I was walking back to the nearby Mountbatten MRT station, I passed an elderly auntie who had a cameo in the epilogue and who was walking, briskly, together with a volunteer, back to the location of the final scene. It had, of course, already ended. The auntie said, sadly: "哎呀, 我每次来不及..." ("Aiyah! I never get there in time (to see the slideshow)..."). It felt like the perfect, brutally depressing metaphor for Dakota Crescent. Aiyah, we never get there in time...