Who would have thought that Surabaya – Indonesian second largest city in East-Jawa with eight huge malls, wide roads and largest sex industry in Southeast Asia – has a truly amazing traditional variant for theatrical genderfuck! Due to the screening of Wariazone I went for an extended weekend in Surabaya. As soon as I got off the train there were three lovely city-girls to meet me – Edit, Reni and Diana – and to drove us on their macho-motorbikes to the hub of some traditional cultural heritage of the waria in East-Jawa. This is the traditional theater where all the female parts are played by warias. It’s almost as if the distinction is drawn on the basis of our genitals – only penises allowed on the stage, and no vagina, no-no. Ludruk gives regular performances every Saturday night. Big hall of blue leatherette seats is filled with perhaps only a quarter section. Someone puffs the smoke with pleasure, others are laughing uproariously, some sleep jaws apart.
Powerful proud warias are standing in their shiny Javanese outfit and gorgeous make-ups on the stage, singing their songs in their slightly broken voice, gamelan orchestra holding the lazy line in the background. They are dancing gracefully in slow motion, trying to pour all their soul into the hands of their feminine beauty. And it can be observed, it can be followed with passion. Now and then a tiny man joins the ladies, dancing and singing along with waria, throwing some jokes to the audience – all the text is, of course in jawanese.
Reni a young waria herself, has never been here, but she has heard of Ludruk before. In about an hour she and Diana started to fidget restlessly, and not even a few minutes had passed when they were already typing some BlackBerry messages. For me, however, Ludruk affects with charm - something authentic is radiating here. It’s a living theater to the simple lower class circles of the city, and they all (at least those who are not sleeping) seem to be very heated up. Shame that I don’t speak Jawanese. However, it is also well-perceived that Ludruk can be a phenomenon about to dye out, if not huge crowds of tourists will fall in love with it in near future, just like I did.
There was a man in the audience who pulled a rose jilbab on his head and danced in front of the stage – it’s a drag a’la Indonesia, happily mocking the existing gender attributes and division. However Edit thought he was trying to identify with the waria.
Senior waria Santo at the backstage
I also took a look inside of the tiny Ludruk cafe, where I was poured some tea by already familiar actress Santo, who’s also one of the charismatic characters in Wariazone. That night Santo was busy, but during my next visit we had a longer talk. Apparently for many of the Ludruk actors and actresses, theater is their whole life – it is also their home. They have their mandi (shower) right here behind the scenes next to the costumes stock. They have their tea and order the fried fast noodles in the theater café.
Narrow, almost invisible door leads to their tiny bedrooms, inhabited by many Ludruk actors. Among them, 70-year-old Santo, who has worked for Ludruk her entire life, it’s been more than 50 years! Her room consists of a small bed and space for exactly one person to stand. There are number of pictures hanging on the walls, of Santo wearing strong make-up and a large haircut – it’s Ludruk’s makeup. Not prostitute’s, she remarks. Between neatly folded piles of clothes some golden, bright, sparkling costumes attract my eye. This is the most decadent, most controversial of glamour that I have seen. This is the glamour of the poorest, the glamour of folk.
In her tiny room behind the scenes of the theatre
Today she was wearing faded pink shirt, no bra and worn-out breeches. Her eyes seem sound and sparkling with temperament. Sometimes when she speaks, she moves her huge lips widely and bulging out her eyes dangerously. Every ten minutes, she lights up another strong cigarette. Santo got involved with Ludruk at the age of 17, when she was forced to run away from home, because her conservative-religious family could not cope with her queer gender identity. This was back in 1955. And her first steps into Ludruk theater changed her life completely, as theater became her life. She tells some stories of the golden age of Ludruk in the 1970s, when all her lovers and adorers had to queue up for her. Now things have become more difficult, mainly financially. She claims to earn somewhat 10 000 rp (1 EUR!) with each show…
Diana, Reni and Edit paying homage to their sisters in front of Ludruk theatre
“Capcus” Reni cried outside in front of the theater later, catching smartphone images of Edit, me and Diana and the proud poster of Ludruk. Only then I learned that in the language of the waria, capcus means “hurry up, c’mon, uh”. No wonder this is one of the most popularly used waria slang I’ve heard in use by the waria. Good old “live fast, die young, leave a nice corpse,” gets another twist and a layered meaning when hanging out with the waria.