The cast of Teater Abnon's latest play honoring the life of a Betawi legend. (Photo courtesy of Image Dynamics)

Teater Abnon Brings a Betawi Champion to Life


OCTOBER 21, 2015

Jakarta. Orang Betawi, the native people of Jakarta, have long told the tale of a young woman named Mirah who was hailed as the capital's champion during the Dutch colonial era.

She was said to have lived in Marunda, North Jakarta, where her father trained her to become a master in pencak silat, a traditional Indonesian form of martial arts.

According to legend, the father-daughter team roamed the streets of Batavia – the name for Jakarta from 1619–1949 – to protect its people from the rampant abuse of thugs ("preman") and colonial soldiers.

Mirah's bravery and fighting skills earned her the title "Lioness from Marunda."

But today, few people, if any, know of her heroic story.

"It's a shame," said renowned Indonesian actress Maudy Koesnaedi. "We can learn so much from Mirah's story. Moreover, the legend comes from our own capital."

In an effort to revive the lost legend of the Lioness from Marunda, Maudy decided to bring Mirah's story onto the stage with her theater group Teater Abnon.

"Jewara – Langgam Hati Dari Marunda" ("Champions – Love Songs From Marunda") opens this weekend at Jakarta Art Theater (GKJ) in Central Jakarta, featuring the acting chops of 35 former Abang None Jakarta pageant contestants. 

"'Jawara' [the play] requires our actors to be in excellent physical condition as they have to act, sing, dance and perform martial arts," Maudy said.

"Therefore, we auditioned former contestants from the years 2009-2015," she added, implying that anyone over the age of 32 would not fit the criteria.

The 35 who were ultimately chosen for the play were then trained in pencak silat by martial arts expert Atien Kisam.

According to Atein, it was once a custom for Betawi parents to introduce their children to pencak silat at a young age for self defense.

"But none of the actors knew pencak silat," he said. "And I had only eight months to train them, so that they can perform the right moves onstage."

As one of the lead actors in the play, Bobby Tanamas recalled training daily to present each move as accurately as possible.

"Some of us sprained our ankles during training," Bobby said. "We would get treated right away so we could continue training the very next day."

For Nurfitri Aprilia, who plays the lead role of Mirah, the experience "was a huge responsibility for me. I didn't know any martial arts, so I had to train very seriously to play a female warrior."

As the play's premiere approaches, Atien looked back at eight months of training and expressed pride in his students.

"Many of them also trained individually, outside of their schedule with Teater Abnon," Atien said. "I truly appreciate their efforts. I'm sure that they will perform very well on opening night."

"Jewara – Langgam Hati Dari Marunda" takes place in the late 19th century and narrates Mirah's story in the later years of her father's life.

Realizing that his advanced age would only put his daughter's life in danger while fighting Batavia's thugs, he encourages Mirah to take a husband and settle down.

Mirah agrees on the condition that her suitor should be able to beat her in a fight.

The ensuing competition for her hand in marriage attracts a slew of suitors, some of whom resort to trickery in their efforts to win.

"It's a very good story that encourages young people to remain honest, be patient and work hard to achieve what they want in life," said Adjie N.A., the play's director. "I think today's generation need to be reminded of this."

The play is sponsored by Bakti Budaya Djarum Foundation (BBDF), a non-profit organization that aims to preserve Indonesian cultures.

"We hope the play would encourage people in Jakarta to learn and preserve Betawi arts and culture," said Billy Gamaliel of BBDF.

'Jawara' will be the ninth play produced by Teater Abnon, has staged productions featuring Betawi arts and culture since 2009.

For more information, visit Teater Abnon's official website.

Tickets are available at 7Eleven convenience stores for Rp 175,000 ($12.76) and Rp 375,000.