A Periodic Broadside for Arts and Culture Workers
October 2009. Vol. 13, No. 4.
Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy
Arts & Administration Program, University of Oregon                        ISSN 1541-938X

Creating & Performing Pinang & Ayu: A Love Story
A Lesbian Shadow-Puppet Performance

Summer Melody Pennell

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I fell in love with wayang kulit (Indonesian shadow-puppet theater) in Jan Mrázek’s art history class in 2003. This love led to my own performance, 6 years later, as a graduate student at the University of Oregon.  On May 7th, 2009 I performed Pinang and Ayu: A Love Story, for my Folklore MA. The performance was largely collaborative, as I was working with Gamelan Sari Pandhawa of Eugene, OR, and I owe director Qehn considerable thanks for his guidance. The creative and learning processes, and of course the performance itself, were unforgettable experiences.

Wayang Kulit is an honored art form in Indonesia. The dhalang (puppeteer) sits behind a screen while manipulating and performing the voices for all the puppets. The show is accompanied by a gamelan (an Indonesian orchestra, consisting mainly of bronze percussive instruments). The stories portrayed are typically based on Hindu religious tales and are adapted by the dhalang to include commentary on local issues. While my goals included honoring and sharing this art form with an American audience, my performance went beyond the normal boundaries of the genre by focusing on lesbian sexuality. This project enabled me to creatively express my own political beliefs. I was also able to reflect on the lives of lesbian women in Indonesia and the U.S., particularly their relationship to their fellow citizens and the government.

Though I have seen and read about wayang kulit performances that include commentary on religion, the government, and the environment, to my knowledge queer sexuality remains unexplored. This is most likely due to the taboo nature of the subject in Indonesia, where gay rights are nonexistent. Since 2000, an increasingly conservative Islamic government has created regional laws that equate homosexuality with prostitution (Blackwood, 2007).  The fear of arrest and violence is prevalent in Indonesian queer communities, as I learned in Bali in 2008 when I met with a few lesbians and transwomen. Their stories further drove me to create a queer wayang kulit.

Although it may seem controversial to some scholars that I am an American using an Indonesian art form to talk about lesbian sexuality, by using wayang kulit I could ground the issue in a culturally specific context. I wanted to include Indonesian queer identities in the contemporary world of wayang kulit, which serves as a type of national narrative due to its popularity. As Robert Cover (1982) states, “[n]o set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning” (p. 4). These are part of a “nomos- normative universe” (ibid). The body and the way society views it are a part of the nomos, as the body is “constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere” (Butler, 2004, p. 21). In Indonesia, this nomos and the public body is generally Muslim and heteronormative. Though I’m not under the illusion that my project had any effect on the Indonesian nomos, this was my small way of introducing a new narrative. Performance can have the power to spur political action, and since I believe in the feminist mantra that “the personal is political” (Forte, 1990, p. 253), I hope that some who saw Pinang & Ayu were inspired to join the fight for queer rights on an international level.

The Script

As an ethnographer of performance, a wayang kulit enthusiast, and a member of Gamelan Sari Pandhawa, I wanted to show my American audience as “true” of a portrayal as possible in form and structure, even though I was simultaneously pushing the boundaries with the content. I also had to consider that not only would the audience be unfamiliar with the genre, but also with Indonesian queer culture. Thus, while I used the play to comment on the lives of lesbians in Indonesia, the jokes, stereotypical lesbian references (softball and mullets), and most political commentary (Obama’s lack of support for same-sex marriage) were American.  I used the Javanese folktale Princess Pinang Masak as a basis for the plot because it has a strong female main character and was easily adapted to include a lesbian storyline. Since wayang kulit is highly codified, an audience familiar with the codes of puppet movement and story structure can easily interpret it and notice breaks from convention (Schecher, 2002, p. 183). However, since I knew there would be few, if any, Indonesians in the audience, I could not rely on manipulating these conventions as a plot device. Still, since the folktale included elements similar to those in Western fairy tales, such as a Princess and a Sultan who desires her, I decided to rely on the manipulation of the audiences’ understandings of these meanings to “[…] ‘destabilize’ the codified forms […]” (Schechner ,2002, p. 189). Any Western audience member would understand that it is a break from the heteronormativity prevalent in folk and fairy tales to make the main characters lesbians. The Princess had a wife and led her army to fight for their relationship and freedom. While Pinang was helped once by Hanoman, the male monkey god, the women primarily helped themselves; they were each other’s Prince(ss) Charming.

It was important to me to create something for a queer audience, especially since there is very little in the entertainment industry created for us, and even less for lesbians (Fouts & Inch, 2005). While most of my queer messages were obvious, the part of the prologue that reads “after a brief, passionate courtship of a few days, [Pinang & Ayu] moved in together” was immediately recognized by the queer and queer-friendly audience members as a play on the popular U-Haul joke that is well-known in American lesbian culture. (What does a lesbian bring on a second date? A U-Haul.) I wanted the heterosexual audience members to understand the show, but they were not first in my mind while writing the script.

The final narration states that “all the happy homos lived under a protective spell, where they will remain until homosexuality is no longer hated and feared, and the narrow-minded ones can see past the curse of hatred within themselves.” I chose to end the story in this way, with the queer people under a permanent spell of disguise, as an adaptation of the original tale in which Pinang prays on her death bed that no woman will be as beautiful as her and so won’t suffer as she did. I could have instead chosen to make the whole society enlightened and accepting, but this utopian view does not reflect the situation in Indonesia or the U.S., and I wanted to give a lasting impression of the need for social change. In Indonesia especially, queer people live their lives primarily underground; this ending, though bittersweet, reflects this reality. Though this performance was largely a celebration of lesbian identities and of lesbians’ perseverance through adversity, ending it without acknowledging the continued struggle for rights and acceptance would have seemed false and even disrespectful of my Indonesian acquaintances.


The performance went well, and I estimate around 150 people attended. The large number of queer people in attendance was likely due to my targeted advertising, and the fact that the fliers all labeled it as a wayang kulit with a “lesbian twist.” Since I was sitting behind a screen during the performance, I was not aware of the audience visually, but I felt their presence and positive energy. I wanted to please them and enjoyed interacting with them: exaggerating the voices according to their responses, pausing for their laughter.

My position as a lesbian and a member of the queer community gave weight, perhaps even a layer of authenticity, to the performance. I embodied this identity visually, by wearing a rainbow sash and styling my hair in a faux hawk; signs that would immediately read as lesbian to the audience and would clearly identify me as “family” to the queer attendees. As Schechner has said, “the audience is not an either/or stagnant lump” (quoted in Finnegan, p. 99), and individuals interact and respond in their own ways, and for their own purposes, to performances. From talking with some of the audience members afterwards, I learned that some were happy to see wayang kulit for the first time, some were happy to see lesbian identities represented, and some of these experiences overlapped.


At times, working on this project made me hyper-sensitive as I worried about how it would be perceived by the audience and all other parties involved. As Schechner (1985) states, “performers- and sometimes spectators too- are changed by the activity of performing” (p. 4). The experience of creating and performing a wayang kulit has enhanced my understanding and respect of the genre, Indonesian culture, and the way performance can be used as a vehicle for social commentary and political activism. Pinang and Ayu: A Love Story was not just a love story about two women, but also an expression of my love for Indonesia, wayang kulit, and the global queer community at large.


Blackwood, E. (2007). Regulation of Sexuality in Indonesian Discourse: Normative Gender, Criminal Law and Shifting Strategies of Control. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 9(3): 293-307.

Butler, J. (2004). Undoing Gender. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cover, R. M. (1983). Foreword: Nomos and Narrative. Harvard Law Review, 97: 4-68.

Finnegan, R. (1992). Oral Traditions and the Verbal Arts: A Guide to Research Practices. New York, NY: Routledge.

Fouts, G & Inch, R. (2005). Homosexuality in TV Situation Comedies: Characters and Verbal Comments. Journal of Homosexuality, 49(1): 35-45.

Schechner, R. (1985). Between Theater and Anthropology. University of Pennsylvania, pp. 3-33.

Schechner, R. (2002). Performance Studies: An Introduction. (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

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Summer Pennell has an M.A. in Folklore from the University of Oregon, where she also studied with the Arts Administration and Anthropology departments. For Pinang & Ayu: A Love Story, she received the Bruce M. Abrams Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Graduate Essay Award. She is currently teaching high school English and observing the local folklore in Windsor, North Carolina.

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