I’ve been telling people that I am in my “Tennessee Williams Era” of my life. I bring attention to it because I am currently reading the legendary playwright’s biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr — which means I am officially an expert of all that is theater, right?
I’m obsessed with Tenn — as his cohorts called him back in the day. He definitely reinvented storytelling on stage with alluring and sexual queer-coded leading men as well as strong, yet traumatically fractured heroines. He was a Southern-fried, petty, openly queer and irreverent gentleman of discerning taste and zest for life. (I can relate.) However, he carries the baggage of generational trauma that fuels his art but also chips away at his soul. He’s the epitome of a tortured artist.
What remains consistent with Williams is that he poured so much of his own experiences in his plays as a means to communicate his own trauma to the world — and they all felt something. Plays like A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof changed the game and continue to be source material for high school drama classes across the country as well as giant productions including the recent West End production featuring Aftersun heartthrob Paul Mescal as Stanley Kowalski and We Are Lady Parts’ Anjana Vasa as Stella.
That’s a hot Stanley and Stella.
Williams preserved his story through the art and it lives on through theater and film. That being said, my consumption of Williams’s biography has piqued my theater curiosity — and contrary to what I said before, I am in no way an theater expert. I have a fair share of musical knowledge, but not so much with plays.
I recently watched Fat Ham in New York and floored and moved by this retelling of Hamlet set in a backyard barbecue with a Black family and a queer lead — something that I appreciate, and more importantly, is exciting.
Theater feels like a more open space when it comes to performance and who gets to tell which story and how. Theater feels more like an open sandbox with a myriad of toys while film & TV is more of a jungle gym, where everyone who is playing on it is just hanging on for dear life reaching for the next wrung to get closer to the top.
I recently watched The Bottoming Process and Monkeys, two Filipino American plays. After just casually looking through my social media feeds, I discovered (thanks the the algorithm of it all) more plays including #Don’t, a modern-day re-interpretation of Filipino hero Jose Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere, which was also playing at the Hollywood Fringe Festival alongside Monkeys.
In addition, the nation’s longest-running Asian American theater, East West Players had the world premiere of Paulo K Tiról and Noam Shapiro’s musical On This Side of the World, a tapestry of Filipino immigrant narratives. The play was so popular that they extended it’s run. And of course, there’s the Broadway debut of the musical Here Lies Love in the forthcoming weeks. The upcoming production will make history as the first show with all-Filipino cast to perform on Broadway.
With a wave of Filipino and Filipino-Americans in the plays and musicals, it feels there is a movement of Filipino theater bubbling up like a pot of sinigang. Or maybe there has been a movement and I’m late to the party. Either way, the talent in the Filipino diaspora is largely immense and wildly ignored.
Perhaps I, like many other people, haven’t been paying enough attention to the theater space where it seems like Filipino talent are given the opportunity to play in the sandbox rather than try to jockey for a place on the jungle gym.
HEY HEY! WE’RE THE MONKEYS
*SPOILER ALERT: This portion of the article contains spoilers about the play Monkeys.*
Currently taking the stage at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, Bernard Badion‘s hyperrelevant Monkeys is set in San Joaquin County during the 1930s and focuses on a group of Filipino farm workers and bunkmates including the passionate leader Marcial (Eugene Cordero); the one looking for love in all the wrong places, Jacinto (Mike Cabellon); the quippy “bastos” one, Kulas (Gilbert Galon); the endearingly naive Benny (Tony Garbanzos); and the new guy, Primo (E.J. Cabasal). There’s also Mansel (Jason Rogel) — a character that we will get into later.
When their crotchety white racist (it’s the ’30s, remember?) boss, Farmer Harry (Dustin Loomis) cuts their pay, Marcial convinces his brothers in arms to pushback and strike. This serves as a springboard of stories that unravel with comedic delight, stirring emotion, as well as sobering histories about earlier generations of Filipino Americans whose stories are lost or never taught in schools.
Transporting you to the ’30s with a solid roster of players, a minimalist set and a song written by J.R. DeGuzman, the play is billed as a “workplace comedy” and I agree — but I can also see it as a historical dramedy.
The farm laborer strike serves as an umbrella to narratives that give texture to the already rare stories about the Filipino American experience and identity. All of which adds to the rich storytelling tapestry that is the Asian Pacific American diaspora as well as the Filipino American community’s contribution to the country.
A romantic, Cabellon’s Jacinto pines after Farmer Harry’s daughter Meg (Isabella Wager), who returns affection but sends mix messages. Is Jacinto only a source of attention for her? A way to rebel against her father? Or does she actually like him? The dynamic between Jacinto and Meg speaks on numerous levels. Mainly, it spoke to the anti-miscegenation laws in California of the era. It also spoke to the landmines of nuances and power dynamics of interracial relationships (which is further explored in The Bottoming Process).
Then there is Jason Rogel’s Mansel. As soon as we are introduced to him, it is clear that he is better off than his fellow Filipinos. Donned in overalls and a sassy sun hat, Mansel is comparable to Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen in Django Unchained. He is essentially Farmer Harry’s prized worker. He doesn’t live in the bunks with the more “blue collar” farm laborers. Mansel sees himself better than Marcial and his fellow bunkmates. He also sees Farmer Harry as an equal, but you and I both know the white man doesn’t give a fuck about him. The Mansel-Farmer Harry dynamic puts a glaring spotlight on white adjacency being a means to equity and acceptance.
Finally we have the play’s hero Marcial, played by Eugene Cordero with an effortless determination. In the end, he sacrifices his own money to help his fellow bunkmates. Marcial’s selfless actions speaks to how to lead a community, yet there is still a faint residue of resentment that always comes with sacrifice. There’s a complex feeling of doing something for the greater good but also losing a part of your own well-being and livelihood in order to do so. You know all those sacrifices your immigrant parents keep talking about? This is that.
Written and directed by Badion, the play is sharp and focused. He fits a lot in the one-hour wonder of a stage event that could very well be a limited series. Monkeys may take place in the 1930s, but its message of outspoken unification speaks volumes in 2023, when the landscape of inclusivity is often met with pushback and obstacles as well as in-fighting and self-sabotage. Its message gives a hope during a moment in time that feels like an unhinged roller coaster ride of ups and downs.
The enlightening histories taught by Monkeys are executed with grace and humor. Each of the core cast has a moment to contribute traits and experiences to showcase the trailblazing “manong era” Filipino American man, traits that have been carried on from generation to generation. Monkeys gives us the opportunity to further explore the human condition while learning about Filipino American history that has been everything but erased.
Monkeys is an intimate diorama of a pioneering era and a look at the seldom explored history of Filipinos’ contributions, struggles, and sacrifices made for the sake of the country.
BEING BAKLA AND THE BOTTOMING PROCESS
In The Bottoming Process, playwright Nicholas Pilapil introduces us to Milo (George Salazar), a young Filipino queer writer who is big on social issues, burning down the patriarchy and has lots of opinions about whiteness. He has a meet-cute with John (Tim Kopacz), a famed Hunger Games-esque novelist that is nearing middle age. They hit it off and thus fireworks — both the good and misfired kind — go off as we go on a journey with them on their newfound relationship where Milo asks John “Why won’t you let me fuck you?” during a heated argument as they wade neck deep in their queer interracial relationship.
At first glance, the question, “Why won’t you let me fuck you?” in an argument might be funny. However, after further inspection, the question cuts deep in a gay relationship that a cis gender white man and a cis gender Filipino man. Immediately, it is clear that Milo enters this relationship with apprehensions due to his own beliefs — but he’s an open-minded guy. But it takes more than an open mind to navigate the space that this relationship created.
With Pilapil as the playwright and Rodney To at the director reins, the play The Bottoming Process hones in on a specific Filipino experience with Filipino talent — a very gay experience. Personally speaking, the play speaks to me through a specific lens that makes me connect to the source material. It doesn’t answer the question “What is my place in this world as a queer Filipino man?” rather it interrogates what is expected of us in the world. It challenges parameters and expectations from one self, the greater Filipino community, and the world.
From the moment we meet Milo, he is very passionate, idealistic and confident with his writing and the space he occupies. When he meets John, there is an attraction and a thick layer of flirting that borders on the line of desperate. At first, it seems off-putting but as Milo talks to John, you realize that he doesn’t realize he’s trying hard to impress him even though it’s clear that John is interested. It’s almost seems like he plays hard to get to a constant validation from John — which I have learned is not healthy. This screams Tennessee Williams. Each of them wanted something from each other but it wasn’t necessarily love.
On the surface, Pilapil’s play feels like a romantic dramedy between two writers who doubt their talent — a recipe for disaster. Milo and John end up using their relationship their books which causes a rift and then becomes a story about power. During a pivotal argument, Milo pushes John to the point where he says that Milo would have no success without him. Milo knew those toxic feelings were in John all along, he just needed to squeeze it out of him like the last drops of a toothpaste tube.
Salazar gives a very strong performance, constantly aware of the presence and purpose of Milo. There are fantastic levels of nuance in navigating a conversation that is not only difficult to express in words, but a challenge to interpret on stage. Salazar’s chemistry with Kopacz keeps the storyline afloat, but Salazar shines best in benchmark moments (particularly the final monologue) and in the scenes he shares with the play’s MVP, Julia Cho who plays his BFF Rosie. Cho has an energetic stage presence that provides a cutting comedic presence that beautifully merges with Salazar’s Milo.
The Bottoming Process explores gay Asian-White relationships in a way that breaks through one of many layers. Pilapil scatters ideas and arguments throughout as it explores a lot about power dynamics, white supremacy, and weaponizing of “woke culture” for the sake of art. More than that, The Bottoming Process lives in an evolving space where Asian men continue to explore their sexuality while unlearning stereotypes and defying expectations.
The Bottoming Process is less about bottoming and more about who’s on top… but if you are going to bottom, be a power bottom.
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Monkeys and The Bottoming Process are two plays that showcase narratives that focus on specific Filipino American stories that not only connect with the greater Filipino diaspora, but also connect on a universal with stories of community, unification and acceptance.
There is no surprise that Filipino stories have thrived on stage — Filipinos love to be the drama. Hell, they love to karaoke and that’s enough. More importantly, the stage has been a platform for talent that the masses tend to overlook when it comes to Filipino representation and stories. As we continue to figure out what authentic representation and equity looks like in entertainment, plays like Monkeys and The Bottoming Process as well as the aforementioned #Don’t, On This Side of the World, and Here Lies Love will help define that. No matter your opinion of these plays, they each have stories that give a satisfying texture to the Filipino American diaspora and its rich history. All this will eventually — hopefully — set the stage for equally enriching TV series and films.
This swath of Filipino American-driven theater feels like a moment. Or maybe I am just ignorant to this scene. If anything, my excitement for these plays stems from a false sense of Tennessee Williams expertise as well as my feelings of seeing my narrative in these pieces of work by talented people that look like me. I know that phrase “being seen” gets thrown around willy-nilly, but it hits different when the specificities are so sharp and focused. It makes me confident and excited about the direction Filipino American storytelling is heading.
Cultural visibility and representation in art is one thing, but what you do with that visibility and representation is what matters more.