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A Review

Stage Presence: Conversations
with Filipino American Artists

Stage Presence: Conversations
with Filipino American Artists

edited by Theodore S. Gonzalves
Publisher: Meritage Press, 2007

 Any student of theatre can tell you about the great emphasis placed on the actor's relationship with the "other," in the scheme of scene production. The important performance aspect of this relationship conceives the framework of any story ever told in theatre-and usually is told from the protagonist's point-of-view. The protagonist who often represents the hegemony is not obligated to objectively tell the story. More so, the protagonist relates events, as he or she perceives them. How often have history books told the story of another's culture, as a construct and not necessarily the way it actually happened? When the opportunity presents for members of non-dominant culture to speak to dominant society about their actual experiences-the others' point-of-view prompts dialogue that can enrich the lives of both. Stage Presence: Conversations with Filipino American Artists provides that opportunity for the benefit of authentic and enriching cultural experiences for everyone.

An anthology of dialogues with various Filipinos, who have become American artists following their own unique paths, Stage Presence's chapters are personal documentaries delivering in-depth conversations, recounting significant chapters of their life stories. For this reader's part, their conversations riveted me to the pages and struck a resonant chord for ethnic artists everywhere. Although the average mainstream reader may be challenged to understand textual references written in Tagalog or Pilipino, Ricardo Trimillos' foreword is essential reading for gaining an understanding of the Filipino American's struggle with duality and belonging, within the American melting pot. There are always accommodations to be made and acclimation taking place, but strong connections to community is their key to survival.

The Los Angeles-based recording executives at Columbia Records were hard pressed to find a marketing niche for Eleanor Academia's Unimpressed style within one genre of music. Consider her own admission that traditional kulintang rhythms with "loud crunchy guitars, pounding drums, and wicked bass lines - [were] very much HEAVY METAL ROCK." This prompted some quick Internet research. I went in search of Academia's Black Swan website to see what all the commotion was about. One hour and three mp3 samples later, I clearly understood the freshness of the Hawaiian-born Southern Californian's appeal. It came from a conglomeration of musical influences she heard on the radio during her youth that fused with the music Academia plays. She is the American Idol that I would like to see on my MTV.

Actor and stand-up comedian Allan Manalo does a hysterically funny send up of his theater director experiences, as a play sketch for his comedy troupe, known as "Tongue in A Mood." Set during their nineties heyday at Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco, their lampoon of holiday fare, Merry Tsismis had me laughing and crying (from laughing). Performances ultimately drew rave critical reviews for 'ethnic theater' from San Francisco Weekly, in 1997.

For her part, Alleluia Panis was less personal and more expository in relating anecdotes about numerous shows performed by the San Francisco Kulintang Ensemble and Kaililang Kulintang Ensemble, as touring artist presenters of traditional music and dance artistry of the Philippines.

Ralph Peña's recollections of his work with the Bodabil theater group at the University of the Philippines, in 1980, are particularly poignant. They reminded me of performances practiced by Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed, whose socially galvanizing style provoked passive spectators into action. Bodabil took news headlines of the day to perform "lightning rallies"—street activism aimed at protesting the actions of the Marcos Regime. Ultimately, these activities led to a dangerous brush with the militarist authorities at that time and subsequent immigration to the U.S. Peña found his transition to living in the states somewhat ironic, knowing the part American Imperialism played during Marcos' reign. Surviving to be a founder of the Ma-Yi theater in New York, he has persevered to see it become the authentic and "best Filipino American theater company in the world."

From the list of Filipino theater companies Peña lists that are in his league, one name distinctly stood out for me—that of QBD Ink, whose founder and artistic director are friends of this performing artist. When Remé Grefalda mounted Krip Yuson's play, Luto, Linis, Laba in 2003-our successful run at the Bethesda Writer's Center featured Filipina maids on a mission, a lively soundtrack by Rod Garcia, and me as Tagalog-singing stage manager. Working with Remé as director, I never imagined the profound ways in which her work would affect the Filipino community and many others like myself. Reading the experience of her name, having wrongly appeared on the first expatriate "Black List" for being a contributor to a "Filipino literary/ arts magazine," conjured images in my mind of the 1950's McCarthy era in Washington, D.C. Fast-forward into the 21st Century, and she has "infiltrated" the Library of Congress, as Librarian of the new Asian Pacific American Collection. That is what I would call progress.

For anyone in search of engaging real-life relationships, Stage Presence has more than a fair share from which to choose. Its appeal lies in taking the ordinary reader into the other's shoes, without leaving their own.

© Laura Huggins

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Stage Presence: Conversations with Filipino American Artists

by Laura Huggins
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