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University "Cultural Night":
the new skunk works of Asian American Theatre

It was important that the audience understood this was the students’ own work, own feelings, and their own points of view.

It was 1983.  Samahang Pilipino, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Pilipino student group, was holding their annual Cultural Night in Ackerman Ballroom.  I had been hired to serve as both director and narrator of an evening that was a combination of student written scenes, Pilipino and Pilipino American history, and Pilipino Folk dances.  We were about a third of the way through the program and I was at the podium, reading aloud through my script when Tony Ricasa, president of Samahang, hailed me from behind the curtain.  Unbeknownst to the audience something had gone wrong backstage and Tony wanted me to stall. 1

I had a little back-up planned for just such an occasion and so at an appropriate moment I pulled out a small harmonica and performed a song entitled Pinoy Blues.

Here is a portion of the song:

I get up in the morning
I walk up my son
He says, “Hey daddy, what’s happening?”
I say “Let’s go por a run”
And on the road
I ask him what I want to be
And Jesusmariajosep, he want’s to be like me
To be a Pinoy
P-I-N-O-Y
I said, a Pinoy
P-I-N-O-Y 2

Pinoy is derived from the word, Pilipino. It is sung in a Pilipino accent which turns “F” to “P” and “V” to “B”.  So, if I wanted to say “fork” it would come out “pork”.  If I wanted to say “Victor” it would be “Bictor”.  This is discussed further on in the article.

At the end of the song I told the audience this evening was special because it was homegrown:  produced by UCLA students, written by UCLA students, and performed by UCLA students.  It was important that the audience understood this was the students’ own work, own feelings, and their own points of view.

Thus was born the Pilipino Cultural Night (PCN) as we know it today.  It was a momentous event because this show in 1983 would be the prototype for other such shows.

cultural nite

Tony Ricasa observed that:

I would agree that our PCN was the one that became the "standard" or "model" by which PCNs have evolved. There was a PCN like when my brother, Robert, coordinated it when he was Samahang Pilipino President at UCLA in 1978.  Although it was more of cultural dancing presentations, fashion show and dance.  No PCNs incorporated the acting and additional aspects that we saw when we did our PCN.  I incorporated elements from my brother's show and other shows that he was involved in, along with ideas I got from seeing a Filipino American play. Kind of like a halo-halo. Ours was a production that incorporated scripts for acting, music (we had a live 30-piece rondalla), song (Filipino and American), dance (both cultural and modern) and social message. 3

Cultural Night became not only a social event but also an art form that would proliferate throughout the West Coast: in UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Long Beach, SF State, San Diego State, and USC just to name a few.  And not just among Pilipinos, but other Asian American student groups would use this format as well.  Student organizations such as the Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, Vietnamese, etc. would duplicate the format.

Theo Gonzalves, published authority on Pilipino Cultural Nights, said, “Even in the East Coast, where Pilipino Americans are not as plentiful, students come together to do a joint-type Cultural Night.  Now the Cultural Night is prevalent and prominent.  It is now referred to as a ‘genre’, an art form, and a sub-culture.” 4

Cultural Night is an evening of songs and dances from the homeland... performed in the university environment.

Along with my wife, actress and writer, Saachiko, we had directed 20 such PCNs from 1983 to 2004 (with the exception of the 1984 UCLA PCN).  In the same period, I had an ongoing commitment to Asian American performances as actor/ writer/director since joining the first and foremost Asian American theatre company, the East West Players in 1974.  In 2005, I appeared as Robert in EWP’s production of Proof and in 2008 I served as the resident film director of the Asian American improvisational group, Cold Tofu.

It is because of this entwined experience of directing Cultural Nights and simultaneously being a producer-creator of Asian American theatre that I believe there is a symbiotic relationship, a synergy that enhances one from the other and vice versa. That relationship, until now, has gone unrecognized.  It is a relationship that creates the latter and enlivens the former.  I submit that Cultural Night is the new skunk works of Asian American theatre.

The Cultural Night is an evening of songs and dances from the homeland or if you are the child or grandchild of immigrants or foreign nationals, it is an evening of entertainment from the motherland performed in the university environment.  The purpose would be to celebrate and educate not only the participants but also others about their heritage.

From Anna Alves, UCLA alumni, whose Master’s thesis was on the Pilipino Cultural Night:

Pilipino Cultural Night is a cultural institution of the Pilipino American university/college student experience throughout California.  Presented annually, during the course of every academic year, PCNs are typically one-night stage productions (sometimes extending to 2 nights, depending on its popularity and prevailing campus resources) and is a separate, often privileged, event within and among the different Pilipino student organizations that create them, evolving within a distinct “genre” of its own.  In many cases, the PCN serves as a cultural identity entrance point for its participants, initiating many into a particular concept of Pilipino American communal legacy with deep historical roots reaching back to a Philippine heritage. 5

My use of the term “Pilipino,” in writing about the Pilipino Cultural Night is in deference to the native dialect of immigrant Pilipinos speaking English as described previously.  Also, Anna Alves noted that Samahang has a semantic political preference for this term.  “The use of the ‘P’ instead of the ‘F’ is privileged within this context because of its specific historical roots in the social movements of the late 1960s, early 1970s. The activism of those years gave birth to UCLA Samahang Pilipino. 6

“Skunk Works” comes from the Al Capp comic strip, “Lil Abner”.  The term refers to a backwoods distillery where a brew called Kickapoo Juice was made.  At Lockheed Martin, the aerospace corporation used this term to refer to a project outside company rules and regulations aimed at speed and innovation.  Tom Peters, noted industry observer, used the term “skunk works” to describe special internal teams isolated given resources and free rein to create, innovate and develop. 7

I am using “skunk works” as a template for a new theatre development: new dramatic work, new artists, and a movement towards theatrical innovation.  Or as described by Merriam-Webster OnLine, “an occurrence or condition that brings something about; especially: the immediate inciting circumstance as distinguished from the fundamental cause.”

I understand Asian American Theatre as exemplified by the East West Players in Los Angeles, California.  Their mission statement says, “As the nation’s premier Asian American theatre organization, East West Players produces outstanding works and educational programs that give voice to the Asian Pacific American experience.” 8

I will be discussing the nature and evolution of the Cultural Night and I will explore the profound impact of Cultural Nights upon Asian American theatre, its artists, and audience.

The Cultural Nights Saachiko and I have worked on had a particular structure:

The resolution of the story tended to support the community, its family values and an affirmation of Pilipinos in America.  This type of ending was by student design.

Welcome and Musical Prologue. The opening consists of welcoming remarks usually by the President and the PCN Coordinator, followed by the organization’s choral group.  At UCLA the choral group numbered several dozen students singing the American national anthem and the Philippine national anthem.  This would be followed by comments about the story the students were about to present and this was usually done by the PCN Coordinator.  The final words to cue the beginning of the show would usually be, “And enjoy the show!”

Variations. At UCLA the order might change depending on the participants involved.  Sometimes the evening would start out with the anthems and then the speakers would enter.

Sometimes, it would be reversed.

Also, in at least one year, because there were so many students interested in performing, they included a “pre-show”: a line-up of singers, solo and group, while the audience members were still filing into the theater.

University of Southern California’s (USC) Troy Philippines (Troy Phi), on the other hand, had less participants compared to UCLA.  In 1990, Troy Phi had two people singing the American national anthem, while Johann Diel sang the Philippine national anthem solo. 9

Thematic Narrative. PCN consists of a narrative that weaves through a collection of cultural and modern dances, as well as cultural folk music and original music written by the students.  The resolution of the story tended to support the community, its family values and an affirmation of Pilipinos in America.  This type of ending was by student design.

A Cultural Night was a family show.  It was typical that these presentations would bring in not only a student’s immediate family but the extended family as well such as uncles, aunties, nieces and nephews, grandparents, friends and friends of friends.  PCNs at UCLA would regularly fill up the prestigious Royce Hall which seats over 1,800 people.  It would get so full so fast that some parents of PCN participants could not get in.  For example, we had a student whose family came down from Fresno, California only to be turned away because Royce Hall was packed to capacity.  Since children were there too, it was decided that adult language would be kept to a minimum.  Even so, adult issues would still be addressed, i.e. war, sexuality issues, etc.  A Pilipino Cultural Night strove, without apology, to explore, affirm and support Pilipino Americans and their lives in the USA.

Epilogue and Ending. The close of the evening usually consisted of an original song tying up the themes of the evening and/or the organization’s theme song.

HOW A CULTURAL NIGHT IS CREATED

Initially, we meet the students for their first rehearsal.  We ask them what their mission statement is for the year.  Sometimes they have one, sometimes not.  Sometimes their theme and the script do not match. In any event, it is our job to make certain that the narrative and plot converge with the group’s mission statement. 

While at UCLA and USC, we experienced two styles in constructing a PCN.  UCLA’s script component consisted of several writers with one taking the lead.  When everything is on schedule, the writers present us with a draft they worked on during the summer.  After the first reading we cut and revise.  They re-write from what we discover in our rehearsals.  If all goes well we have the script streamlined and the actors’ performance ready by PCN night.  Unfortunately, sometimes scripts do not come in on time and we resort to script doctoring or more.  One year a promised written script did not arrive and it was three weeks before the big night.  Our solution was to write our own script.  This was in the early years of e-mailing and the students were sending re-writes back and forth till the early hours of the morning.

Working with USC is different.  At USC we agree on the theme then we build the scenes through improvisation.  Together with the actors we improvise scenes, dialogue, and characters.  The improvisations are transcribed and then that script is revised and revised, again, during rehearsals.

It would be a struggle to keep a PCN cast, sometimes numbering 300 students, for more than one show. 

From then on, the rehearsal process for both schools is traditional.  We would set the blocking for the play, working on scenes and songs.

THEMES

During my time with UCLA, I observed that their themes went through three phases:  1) Pilipino history–the stories of immigrants, Pilipino national heroes and heroines; 2) Identity–The stories of immigrant parents versus American-born offspring; and 3) A slice of Pilipino American life. This is the most recent trend.  By 1998 the stories delved into issues of gangs, family relationships; student and gender issues.

PARTICIPANTS

Students who participated in the PCNs were largely non-theatre majors such as Pre-Law, Pre-Med, Accounting, etc.  From a stage director’s point of view, non-theatre majors were bundles of freshness and enthusiasm.  They had the very best attributes of the “amateur” performer:  willingness and energy without the jaded baggage of a “professional” actor.  The downside was in their lack of stagecraft experience and their low endurance level.  They were willing spirits but their commitment was fragile.  A PCN production calendar is pointed to one performance only.  It would be a struggle to keep a PCN cast, sometimes numbering 300 students, for more than one show.  However, an exception to that rule occurred at UCLA: the organizers put on a festival-style PCN incorporating two shows in one weekend.

Because students were skipping classes in favor of rehearsals, Samahang instituted a student retention group called “Samahang Pilipino Education and Retention” project (SPEAR) to ensure that students would not let their schoolwork suffer during this period.

From Maricar Montano, UCLA, PCN participant from 2001-2004
…the CN experience is a positive contribution to the Asian American community.  First of all, it really builds a community to begin with.  It is a very appealing and engaging way to have people participate in the efforts of the mother organizations.  Furthermore, if done with meaning (through the script especially) members of the CN are better able to define their identities as Asian Americans. 10

Antoine Diel, USC, professional actor said:

I saw USC's 1991 Cultural Night where my brother performed.  It was fun and it was story based.  It was impressive….The main story focused on the experience of going back home for the young son… It was nice to see my culture portrayed on stage when other performances that I had seen at that point in time did not.  It is a form of theater that college students can get involved in and contribute and learn and participate in their own culture, sometimes their first experience doing anything Filipino besides eating the food. 11

Genevive Espinosa, UCLA Alumni, added:

I believe culture nights are a worthwhile endeavor to participate in and to be an audience member of. It is another form of education and art that can reflect culture in its past and present generations.  It can be both a learning experience about culture and also a creative experience where you a participant become a creator of culture.” 12

Such has been my experience and  my understanding of Cultural Nights. So, how does this become the new skunk works of Asian American Theatre?  How does this event become the future route for new theatre, new dramatic work, new artists, and new creative innovations?

ASIAN AMERICAN THEATRE

Skunk works innovation is promoted by the Cultural Night in three areas:

Increase in the number of Asian American Theatre Groups. In Los Angeles there are a number of professional Asian American Theatres: Cold Tofu  Diversity Players, East West Players, 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, Great Leap, Here and Now, Lodestone Theatre Ensemble, OPM, ProperGander, Room to Improv, and TEADA Productions/Kalo Projects.  Also there’s the Grateful Crane Ensemble and Art 168. 13

The Cultural Night genre has become the most current expression of the Asian American college generation.

But the college campus is where a scripted Cultural Night is presented.  Here is the seedbed of genuine theatre experience relevant to Asian Americans.  At UCLA alone there is the Korean Student Group, the Vietnamese Association, The Nikkei Student Union (Japanese American student group), The Chinese Student Association, Samahang Pilipino, and on and on.  They all have Cultural Nights which they perform once a year.  These groups share the same structure: an original script, actors, and music. And that is just for one campus.  Spread that across the California State University system alone and Asian American Theatre proliferates.  The Cultural Night genre has become the most current expression of the Asian American college generation.

Proliferation of New Theatre Artists.  After 4 years, these wonderful Cultural Night performers find themselves without a home.  Some go on to become professional actors, writers, directors, and producers.  Antoine Diel and Ova Samang from USC are professional actors.  Mel Ilomin from UCLA composes music.  Corky Pascual made a documentary on Pilipino boxers.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with Ted Bonita who has become a producer of stage plays such as Jessica Hagedorn’s “Dogeaters” and musical CDs:

The first CN I saw I actually helped as part of the stage crew. I remember handling the mics. And a portion of the stage direction. It was impressive because I had never seen anything like it before–melding my Filipino-ness with my American-ness–into a presentable show.  Although the script and "acting" were less than what in my mind I expected, what moved me were the dances because I saw fellow students/Filipino-Americans doing the dances from our homeland. To me, that was very impressive.  To participate in a PCN is a true experience and, depending on what you do in the CN, can be very formulative to what you want to do–either in life or as a career. Case in point....me!!  CN's taught me about direction and production–the abc's of what it takes to put on a good show, with meaning and with heart. 14

Expansion of the Asian American Audience.  There are some indications that the youth of America are becoming interested in viewing and participating in theatre.  For American theatre to survive, its future is in her youth. From a Theatre Communications Group report by Stephanie Coen with Stephen C. Forman and Ben Cameron, they note that: 

…participants across the country, particularly those affiliated with training programs, note a trend toward young people wanting to make theatre—and applying in large numbers to graduate schools—but too rarely going to see it. Says designer Susan Tsu (Tex.), "As an educator and a theatre artist, I’m concerned about theatre that is of interest and affordable to younger people." "Audience development is not about numbers," notes Amanda Dehnert of Providence, R.I.’s Trinity Repertory Company. "We get distracted by our need for sales and subscriptions. My generation is not coming; we have to remind them that theatre is an essential part of their lives." 15

If this is true for American Theatre then it is even more so for Asian American Theatre.  From “Audience Development and Community Engagement/Branding,” The Next Big Bang: The Explosion of Asian American Theatre, Final Report, June 19, 2007: 

A June 2005 survey was sent out nationally with a majority of the participants (panelists and audience) participating in the pan-Asian survey. Among the findings: a plurality of theatres and performance groups wanted to increase their Asian American audiences and their younger audiences; the majority of theatres and performance groups averaged between 50%-75% houses during a typical run; and by far, the largest non-Asian demographic in their audiences were Caucasian.  Audience make up was discussed, as well as goals for each group. Goals included: identifying what people want to see; showing non-Asians who Asian Americans are; and more risk-taking in building audiences. Mike Molina spoke about setting up opportunities to create a “buzz,” to increase dialogue with potential audiences, and engaging those your theatre has access to. Sandy Agustin felt that it was important to use art as a tool to tell stories, to cross-pollinate, to be relevant and responsive to the community, to do nothing in isolation, and to do everything in partnership. She asks, ‘how do we get society to value the arts?’ Stefanie Wong spoke about the differences between EWP’s original aim and how it has evolved; how to get the audience to buy into the concept of your theatre, beyond the shows themselves; how subscribers are the lifeline of the theatre. 16

I submit that all those family, friends, and relatives who went to see their loved ones in a Cultural Night for four years become part of an experienced Asian American theatre-going public.
Cultural Night and Asian American theatre provide a vital service to the community.  They become an alternative vision of our role in America; otherwise the outlook is bleak for ourselves and our children.

Guy Aoki and Jeffery Scott Mio underscore the effects upon Asian Americans of marginal representation that is promoted and maintained by the media.  They write:

As many have indicated in the past, the media can have a profound effect in making people believe the stereotypes they see. Indeed, there is evidence that Asian American children have no Asian heroes, as they reported admiring Black figures the most and White figures the next most; they did not identify any Asian nor Latino figures as being admirable (Children Now, 1998; Cortés, 2000). 17

The vitality and necessity of Asian Americans performing for Asian Americans is underscored in the final report of “Asian American Youth Programs”, Next Big Bang: The Explosion of Asian American Theatre, June 19, 2007.  The report surveys a variety of Asian American performing groups for youth.  The value of young Asian Americans performing for their peers is addressed:

Seeing Asian American teens in performance helps young people overcome social anxiety and other social issues, helping them to articulate goals, and find a sense of identity through writing and performance. They also discussed the difference between immigrant youth and generational conflicts and how performance and self-expression can help bridge the generation gap. Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) youth are generally under represented in other performance programs, making these specific programs even more important. 18

The Cultural Night is an unrecognized matrix of Asian American creativity: writing, directing, acting, and audience.  For all the flaws it may have as an art form, its positive effect is potent if not miraculous.  It is so critical for a community to have access to this particular theatre form.

From Margaret Cho’s DVD, Notorious:

When you do not have self-esteem you will hesitate before you do anything in your life.  You will hesitate to go for the job you really want to go for.  You will hesitate to ask for a raise.  You will hesitate to call yourself an American.  You will hesitate to report a rape.  You will hesitate to defend yourself when you are discriminated against because of your race, your sexuality, your size, your gender.  You will hesitate to vote.  You will hesitate to dream.  For us to have self-esteem is truly a revolution. 19

The value of theatre for the Asian American community is fundamental.  It is the reflection of itself.  The presence and proliferation of Cultural Nights through Asian communities is an event of self-definition and celebration.  For the audience it verifies and validates their presence and contributions in America.  It enhances the spirit and soul of a community.

Footnotes

1 Ricasa, Tony.  E-mail communication, 23 August 2007

2 Magwili, Dom. “I had written “Pinoy Blues” for EWP’s touring festival, Made In America, in 1976.

3 Ricasa, Tony.  E-mail communication, 23 August 2007

4 Gonzalves, Theo.  Interview.  “Pilipino Cultural Night a ‘rite of passage’ for students”.  San Francisco Chronicle Podcasts, Pinoy Pod, 5 Aug. 2007.

5 Alves, Anna Maria.  “In search of ‘Meaning’: Collective Memory and Identity in Pilipino Cultural Night at UCLA,” Diss, UCLA, 1999, 10

6 Alves, Anna Maria.  Id.at 3.

7 Brown, Terrence, 2001. Skunk works: A Sign of Failure. A Sign of Hope? The Future of Innovation Studies, 4-6.

8 East West Players Website, 2007.  About EWP: Mission Statement, On-Line.  Available from Internet, http://www.eastwestplayers.org/aboutus.htm, accessed 29 August 2007

9 Diel, Johann, E-mail response, 30 August 2007

10 Montano, Maricar. E-mail Interview. 25 March 2007

11 Diel, Antoine. E-mail Interview. 25 March 2007

12 Espinosa, Genevive. E-mail Interview 25 March 2007

13 Directory, Asian American Review, edited by Roger W. Tang, August 24, 2007 Available from Internet http://www.aatrevue.com/Directory.html, 25 July 2007

14 Bonito, Ted, E-mail Intertview, 25 March 2007

15 Coen, Stephanie; Stephen C. Forman, Ben Cameron.  2006, The Field and its Challenges, Theatre Communications Group Report, Available from Internet, http:// www.tcg.org/ publications/ at/2000/field.cfm, accessed 11 August 2007

16 Walseth, Stephanie Lein, (Moderator); Sandy Agustin, Mike Molina, Stefanie Wong (Panelists). “Audience Development and Community Engagement/Branding”, The Next Big Bang: The Explosion Of Asian American Theatre, Final Report, June 19, 2007, 12

17Aoki, Guy and Jeffery Scott Mio, “Stereotypes and Media Images,” Manuscript, 2008, 4.

18 Isa, Gayle (Moderator); Helene Achanzar, Anida Esguerra, Michelle Lee, Adriel Luis, Chon Phoeuk, Gary San Angel, Mike Trinh, and Leakhena Yoeun (Panelists). June 19, 2007. “Asian American Youth Programs”, Next Big Bang: The Explosion of Asian American Theatre, Final Report, 11

19 Cho, Margaret Notorious, Windstar DVD, 2002

© Dom Magwili

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