Miss Tjitjih Theater Group: Jakarta, West Java

Once the talk of the town, traditional Sundanese play group Miss Tjitjih is struggling to survive. Named after its legendary lead actress back in the 1920s, the group is known for its horror comedy theatrical productions — some of them adapted into films such as Beranak dalam Kubur (Giving Birth in the Grave) and Si Manis Jembatan Ancol (The Pretty Girl of Ancol Bridge).

The group also performs Sundanese tales like Sangkuriang and Lutung Kasarung, as well as Betawi stories like Macan Kemayoran, Golok Ciomas, Jawara Tak Dikenal, and Banjir Getih di Rawa Bangke as Agnes Winarti writes.

“We used to have more than 200 people coming to our show every night. Now, we are already very grateful to see some 50 people in the audience,” senior cast member Imas Darsih, 45 said.

“In the 1970s, we could even perform twice a night.”

Since July 2007, the group has been performing only twice a month, at the most.

Imas, mother of two, said it had become harder to pass Sundanese traditional culture on to the younger generation, because young people nowadays were more interested in what the television stations had to offer.

“Traditional programs on television, if there is any, are always broadcast very late at night. I doubt there are any youngsters watching them.”

Maman Sutarman, who said he joined Miss Tjitjih the day he was born in 1956, said “If you can sit at home and have the TV remote control, why should you deal with a traffic jam just for a traditional Miss Tjitjih play?

“People prefer practicality.”

Maman, whose actress and singer mother and musician father were cast members, is now the director of the group.

The group has been trying to attract larger audiences by shortening the duration of the play to a maximum of two hours from four to six hours, as well as mixing Indonesian and Betawi into the usually pure Sundanese language script.

“Sometimes, there are only 16 people watching the performance,” said another actor, Edy Hidayat or “Mang Ujang”, 55.

All cast and crew earn between Rp 25,000 and Rp 50,000 for every performance.

To make ends meet, most actors usually do scratch work as well.

Mang Ujang work as a driver, while Mang Essek has been taking side jobs as an emcee at wedding receptions, narrating other theatrical productions, and even playing extras in TV film production over the last five years.

Another member of the cast, Karta or “Mang Cimung”, who has been part of Miss Tjitjih for 35 years, works as an ojek driver, earning some Rp 20,000 to Rp 30,000 a day.

Despite the lack of income, Mang Ujang said, “I am grateful that none of us must beg for money to have food on the table.”

The group survived a 1997 fire that destroyed their theater on Jl. Kabel Pendek, Cempaka Putih, Central Jakarta, only to find interest in their performances had dropped.

In 2004, they returned to perform in the 800-square-meter theater building after it was renovated by the Jakarta administration.

The second- and third-generation cast members, of whom there are about 50, have since lived in a two-level dormitory behind the theater.

Each of the 17 families gets a 3.35-by-6.35-meter dorm unit.

One of the younger cast cast members, Rohatin, 22, who only has a junior high school education background, said she had to continue performing with the group “because that’s the only thing to do to not be ousted from the dorm”.

Mang Cimung, whose two children finished only junior high school, said that although education was important for the younger generation “it is hard to live from day to day, let alone pay school fees”.

The Jakarta Culture and Museums Agency allocated Rp 1.5 million for each performance, which includes fees for cast members, over the past six months. Previously, the budget was Rp 3 million per performance.

“There is no promotion agent for our performance. We make and distribute fliers ourselves by riding motorcycles to Cempaka Putih and Senen,” said Mang Cimung.

Mang Essek said it was unfortunate that the public lacked an appreciation for its traditional inheritance. “For decades we maintained the Sundanese language in our performances, while none of the inohong (West Java senior public figures) ever came to watch our play.”

“Perhaps they aren’t even aware that we exist, but we are still crossing our fingers and hoping that they will eventually realize.”

Despite the murky future of the theater group, Mang Essek said he did not wish to leave.
“Miss Tjitjih is my home,” he said.

Miss Tjitjih performs on the first and third Saturday of every month at 8:00 p.m. The next performance is on Feb. 16, titled Kuntilanak di Rumah Kosong (Empty House Possessed by a Devil Woman). The ticket price is Rp 10,000. For further information, contact cast coordinator Maman Sutarman on 0815 1443 3763