From Jakarta, a captivating and lively form of traditional theatre called Lenong Betawi thrives. This age-old performing art combines the elements of theatre, music and folk traditions. Lenong Betawi has been enchanting audiences for centuries, even in the age where entertainment can be easily accessed through internet and television, it remains popular amongst local.

Lenong Betawi was born from years of cultivation and adaptation from the Betawi culture from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, specifically during the Dutch colonial era. In its practice back then, Lenong Betawi offered a platform for locals to express their cultural identity and resist colonial oppression, this continues until today, where often you will find critiques towards the government wrapped in clever jokes at any Lenong Betawi performances.

There are two types of Lenong Betawi, the first is Lenong Denes. Derived from the Betawi dialect where Denes means ‘service’ or ‘official’, the actors and actresses who perform generally wear formal costumes and the story told is of a royal or aristocratic setting, the languages in this Lenong are soft and polite. The other is Lenong Preman (thugs), it tells the stories of everyday lives, usually about the oppression of the people, and uses more common and sometimes crass language. Unsurprisingly, this is the type of Lenong Betawi that remains popular today!

There are several key elements of Lenong Betawi. First is the colour characteristics, since the trademark of this performing art is its social commentaries, the stories and casts of this play cover the different facets of the Betawi Society. Second is the humour, the dialogues in Lenong Betawi performances are comedic and filled with witty wordplay, puns, and satirical commentary on social issues, keeping the audiences entertained while leaving food for their thoughts.

According to Firman Muntaco, a renowned Betawi writer and historian, Lenong Betawi developed from the theatricalisation of gambang kromong music, which thus plays a crucial role in Lenong Betawi, opening and closing every performance. Melodies and songs are also interspersed throughout the play to enhance the emotional depth of the narratives. The last key that makes Lenong Betawi one-of-a-kind is the improvisational nature of the show. Though it follows a pre-written plot, performances usually engage in spontaneous exchanges and improvisation, this creates natural, honest and blunt dialogues that rouse even bigger reactions from the audience.

Lenong Betawi stands as a testament to the resilience and creativity of the Betawi people. It echoes the spirit of the land that it came from, vibrant, diverse, blunt, honest and alive, captivating audiences and preserving the heritage of Jakarta in the face of changing times.

Dinda Mulia

Dinda Mulia

Dinda is an avid explorer of art, culture, diplomacy and food. She is also a published poet and writer at NOW!Jakarta.