TAK­ING THE STAGE

THE PLAY­WRIGHT EX­PLORES CUL­TURAL AU­THEN­TIC­ITY FOR FILIPINO-AMER­I­CANS IN HIS NEW PLAY, ‘ MA­HAL’

Chicago Sun-Times - - THE DAILY SPLASH -

I’ve wanted a life in the arts ever since I was a kid. Grow­ing up in LA, I was lucky enough to land an agent who sent me out for au­di­tions, de­spite the lack of di­ver­sity in­her­ent in the in­dus­try. I didn’t know any­thing about my race at the time; I was just a kid do­ing what I loved.

But one day, af­ter work­ing my tail off for an au­di­tion that I didn’t book, I asked my agent why I hadn’t got­ten the part. “They wanted to cast a kid who looked like the mom,” she replied sim­ply. And for the first time, at the age of 10, it struck me: I was dif­fer­ent. It wasn’t un­til I was in a cast­ing di­rec­tor’s wait­ing room, sur­rounded by kids who looked like me, that I found a word for it by sneak­ing a peek at the break­down: Asian.

Years later, I can proudly say that as a FilipinoAmer­i­can the­ater artist, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve played non-Asian roles as of­ten as I’ve played Asian roles. So it was a harsh re­minder when es­tab­lished com­pa­nies La Jolla Play­house and Royal Shake­speare Com­pany re­cently cast pre­dom­i­nantly Cau­casian pro­duc­tions of shows set in China (“The Nightingale” and “The Or­phan of Zao,” re­spec­tively).

This con­tro­versy opened up a con­ver­sa­tion about cul­tural au­then­tic­ity in the­ater, specif­i­cally as it re­lates to Asian cul­ture. Maybe that’s why it’s such a novel con­cept that I wrote my play, “Ma­hal,” about a fam­ily of Filipino-Amer­i­cans — and cast FilipinoAmer­i­can ac­tors.

I never meant “Ma­hal” to be a play about cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion. What I’d re­ally set out to do two years ago was to write a play for my dad, who had just passed away. He’d had his own ver­sion of the Amer­i­can Dream that he never saw ful­filled, and I’d be damned if I was go­ing to let his legacy go all “Willy Lo­man” from “Death of a Sales­man.”

So I wrote. I wrote about my fam­ily, and about the cul­ture I was born into, both Filipino and Amer­i­can. And once Baili­wick Chicago be­gan pro­duc­ing the play, I found it cathar­tic to get to work with ac­tors who were able to work from the in­side out for the first time.

It’s hum­bling when Filipino-Amer­i­cans thank me af­ter the show for telling their story. It’s in­de­scrib­ably sat­is­fy­ing when non-Filipino au­di­ences re­mark on how univer­sal the story is. And it’s puz­zling when peo­ple re­mark on how sur­prised they are that “the fam­ily seems so Amer­i­can!” It’s what peo­ple have come to ex­pect, I sup­pose. In a world of hy­phen­ates, peo­ple tend to for­get the “Amer­i­can” part of “AsianAmer­i­can. It’s odd, since so many of us have spent most of our lives mak­ing the lat­ter more ap­par­ent.

But it’s not a co­in­ci­dence that once I em­braced what made me “dif­fer­ent,” I came up with a story that peo­ple wanted to see, a story that they saw them­selves in. We live in a very in­spir­ing time, one where peo­ple want to see pieces that are true to the cul­ture they come from. Though we’ve still got a long way to go, ev­ery day we get a lit­tle bit closer to cul­tural au­then­tic­ity for all. “Ma­hal” is play­ing through Aug. 2 at Stage 773 (1225 W. Bel­mont). For tick­ets ($35), visit Stage773.com or the box of­fice.

DANNY BERNARDO’S BOW

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