THE KING OF TOBONG

The stage was dark and empty. All the ketoprak players were already back in their rooms hours ago. Diman could not catch a single murmur. Just silence.

Usually after the show was over, they spent time chatting or joking with each other. Maybe they’re already asleep, thought Diman. Sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor, he still wore his stage costume, a king’s outfit. Tonight they had performed Setyawati Obong, and, as usual in that drama, he had played King Jogorojo.

He took off his crown and set it on the floor beside him. Under the spotlights, that crown always glittered with golden sparks. But now it was hard to imagine it as a king’s crown.

He started to feel a bit sad. Maybe they are tired of chatting and joking tonight because they have all gotten tired of this life, Diman thought again. He lifted his eyes and gazed out, but could see nothing but darkness.

The show tonight was much like all the previous nights. Only a few people came to see their performance. Maybe fifteen, seventeen. They didn’t even fill a quarter of the hall. If just 50 people would come to the show, I’d be damn satisfied, Diman said to himself.

Diman let himself reminisce about the heyday of his lifetime career as an actor and singer performing ketoprak, as he took a deep drag off his kretek. What tremendous years those were, he thought. As he stared dreamily off somewhere in the distance, scene after scene of his glory days in the 1970s played out before his eyes. Though almost three decades had passed, his remembrances were always as fresh as if he had staged them yesterday.

In those years Diman and his itinerant ketoprak troupe, Sekar Budaya — he was a member for more than 25 years — traveled from city to city around East and Central Java performing. Wherever they stopped, people enthusiastically welcomed them and flocked to see their show.

Diman remembered, feeling very once-upon-a-time-ish, in 1978 Sekar Budaya staged live performances 30 days in a row on the outskirts of the city of Surabaya. Every night almost a thousand ardent followers came to the stage, the tobong, to see them.

And it wasn’t just the public performances. Sekar Budaya was often invited to perform their shows for private patrons. One day a wealthy merchant from Tuban hired them to stage a drama, the love story of Arjuna and Dewi Subadra, for his daughter’s wedding. The merchant was so pleased he paid the troupe 15 million rupiah, a splendid sum, a king’s ransom, for a single performance in those days.

Those successes made Diman famous. Because of his handsome figure and his charisma, Sekar Budaya’s manager almost always gave him the role of king, or knight or even a god. And Diman always performed perfectly, beautifully. enchanting people to forget it was only a role, only a play.

Money was incredibly easy to come by then and women lined up for his attentions.

Just yesterday he and Tarno were thinking back on the women of their yesterdays. “You had a damn good-looking face, Diman. That’s why they wanted you so badly,” Tarno said.

Diman grinned. “Yeah, I was once a good-looking guy. But now I’m nothing but old, poor and pathetically lonely. No woman wants me anymore. Those women kept me so crazy busy, I forgot to get serious and marry one of them, eh?” Diman said lightly, the ghost of a leering smile playing on his wrinkled lips.

Tarno blinked and smiled back. “Look at the bright side. At least you still have Wulan around, haven’t you?” he teased.

Diman grinned again but said nothing. Tarno was right. At least he had Wulan. Wulan was a kind person who always paid him great attention and showed him how much she cared. Some said she had dedicated her life to Sekar Budaya because of her love for Diman. And Diman knew it to be true.

He knew it because he could see it sometimes when he looked her in the eyes. He thanked her for that. He always wanted to be good and gentle toward her and to his credit he was. But that was all he could do. He definitely could not marry her, seeing as Wulan was a transsexual.

***

Diman watched the dangdut show. One female singer wearing a second-skin metallic outfit swayed her hips back and forth provocatively as she sang. The crowd applauded madly. A man clambered up to the stage.

Waving a wad of money in his right hand, he approached the singer and started to dance with her. In the middle of the song he started peeling off the bills one by one and handing them over.

Diman fixed his eyes on them. He knew well those blue bills the man was flicking through. He counted twenty times fifty thousand.

“Look,” he said hoarsely to Tarno, “he’s already handed her a million and he’s still giving her more. I bet he’s got two million in his hand. It’s crazy!”

Tarno kept staring. The song was now over. The singer thanked her benefactor with a lusty sweet smile crossing her red sparkling lips. The man turn to step down from the stage, his face lit with pride. Another female singer came forward and started to sing. Diman licked his dry lips as he watched another man jump to the stage, another hand full of money.

“How lucky they are, those singers. They’re sure to get millions tonight,” Tarno sighed recalling their pay for the show two days before. Only five thousand rupiah!

“Well, now people love dangdut. This is their time,” murmured Diman.

“Yes. Look at this crowd — like our golden days, isn’t it?” Tarno said. Over the past eight years the number of people coming to see their show was decreasingly drastically. Yesterday less than thirty people came to watch. “Our time has already long gone. People don’t want us anymore,” added Tarno bitterly.

The two old men shared some silence on the wooden bench under the spreading Poinciana tree. From that high ground they had a better view of the stage and the crowd below. The night crawled toward midnight and the dangdut show continued to allure.

“I wonder if one day we might get the chance to go abroad,” Tarno said out of the blue.

“Abroad?”

“Yes. To the white people’s countries. I know they love our traditions. So I’m sure they would welcome our show. And the pay wouldn’t be bad either.”

“Really? It sounds terrific.”

“Sure it does.”

“If only I could go there before I die. I wish I could capture the feeling of those glory days before my last breath. But if we go there, would we build the tobong?” Diman asked.

“I doubt it. We’ll play inside in a theater building, and sleep in a hotel, I bet.”

They fell silent again. Their minds filled with rhapsodies about putting on their show abroad.

Diman rose. “I’m heading home. I’m tired,” he said.

“Yeah, me too,” answered his friend.

***

Diman stood on a stage, has back straight with pride, as the show ended. That night he had played his role perfectly once more, this time as King Jayabaya. He looked down at the crowd. Everyone was rising from their seats and giving a long, clamorous applause.

They were all white people with blond hair and blue eyes. Diman felt tremendously pleased. At last, he was once more reborn as a famous player. It was he, the one who played the role of king so well, just like he had long ago.

Deep in sleep, Diman smiled happily. It was the best dream he had ever had.

Note :
Tobong: a temporary wooden stage built for ketoprak or similar popular outdoor performances. Usually below the stage there are several tiny cabins, about 2 meters square and only 1.5 meters high, where the actors await their turn on the stage above.
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Penulis :  Octaviana Dina
dimuat dalam The Jakarta Post edisi Minggu, 21 September 2008

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