Friday, September 11, 2015


Ricardo D. Trimillos introduces STAGE PRESENCE: Conversations with Filipino American Performing Artists edited by Theodore S. Gonzalves 
(Meritage Press, San Francisco & St. Helena, 2002)



Before engaging in commentary, I extend thanks and congratulations to Theo for assembling the thoughts and words from ten major Filipino figures of performing arts in America. I have worked with five of the ten artists, four of whom I know well. In the past my major interaction with these friends has always been centered on the work – creating and performing. Experiencing their “voices in print” I am delighted to learn more of the reflexivity and analytical thought that complement their artistry. Throughout Conversations there is an implicit assumption that the reader is familiar with things Filipino, Pilipino, Pinoy, Hawai‘i oriented and Asian American. My commentary assumes the same.

I was struck by the Filipinicity reflected in the anthology’s overall organization and in the spirit of the individual presentations. Although I refer to the book as Conversations (the subtitle) in the interest of brevity, I find that the main title Stage Presence readily invites comparison with traditional Filipino performance forms. It is an invitation no academic in performance studies could refuse!

The anthology, with its diverse discourses and mixed trajectories, reminds me of folk theater, specifically the komedya or (its more historical but un-PC name) Moro-moro. In the Moro-moro we already know the general narrative: Christian prince journeys to an alien land and encounters Muslim princess. Following some surmountable (sic) difficulties, e.g. palace walls and forbidden gardens, Christian prince enthralls and wins Muslim princess. In different plays the degree of success/happy ending varies, from the modest (marrying the princess) to the spectacular (mass conversion of the entire Muslim kingdom to Christianity). In the same way, we can anticipate the general structure of Conversations: Filipino artist, finding him/herself in an alien environment, encounters challenges and difficulties. Artist ultimately experiences some success, modest or spectacular. As in the Moro-moro, in Conversations a principal interest – perhaps its major value – is discovering how the protagonist moves through various phases of the experience, richly presented in each individual narrative. Extending the Moro-moro metaphor, I suggest a similarity in function and flavor between the puntador (prompter) of the komedya and the interviewer in Conversations, e.g. the Baltazar and Kalanduyan pieces. I find that the medium of presentation consciously or coincidentally references traditional Filipino models.

Taken individually and as a gestalt, I consider the ten presentations not so much conversations as stories: Theo has organized a kind of kuwentohan, the Filipino genre for socializing in which raconteurs tell stories and create narratives. Often there is no apparent cohesiveness or point to a kuwento until the end, when everything becomes clear(er). Thus the Filipino focus upon process, the “getting there,” makes kuwentu- kuwentohan simultaneously engaging, social, delightful, and enlightening. I find these qualities in Conversations, with its highly personal accounts and diverse voices. So, one of my first reactions after reading the anthology – how Pinoy! In retrospect I realize how much my contribution differs from the mga kuwento that follow: mine is single authored and does not reflect the social interaction of two (or more) persons – how Kano!

Although Theo has consciously set out to avoid creating a canon of “Filipino-American” artists, i.e. the Great Masters trope, I think he has produced something more valuable and immediately useful – a functional taxonomy for archetypes of Filipino artists in the U.S., or by extension, in the diaspora. I consider a taxonomy extremely useful for understanding and appreciating the diversity of cultural production as well as the lived experiences of those Theo is calling “Filipino American.” I have reservations about the essentialist nature of the term, an issue I return to at the end of these comments. I find the array of artists suggests a number of nuanced archetypes that make the Filipino creative matrix in the U.S. more complex than a single term can convey. I suggest there are at least four archetypes or categories of Filipino artists in America to be found in Conversations.

The category most personally resonant concerns performers of Filipino ancestry born in the U.S. Theirs is the experience of a) being born into minority status, b) the dual challenge of existing simultaneously in a socio-economic hegemon and in a minority cultural gemeinschaft, and c) the drive for artistic recognition in both American mainstream and Filipino (in the U.S.) minority domains. These experiences are reflected and candidly articulated in the stories of Eleanor Academia, Joel Jacinto, Pearl Ubungen and in the thick description of Allan Manalo’s faux playscript. Allan’s old-timer is a diasporic Juan Tamad – he embodies the baggage, the conscience, and the comfort that every American-born Filipino must engage. Joel’s physiognomic/cultural/linguistic marginalization, Eleanor’s problematised juxtaposition of heavy metal and kulintang, and Pearl’s ethical interrogation of the Philippine American War raise issues of national vs. cultural identity as well as the anxiety of belonging to or being accepted by the nation of birth and/or the nation of heritage.

Alleluia Panis and Jessica Hagedorn constitute a second archetype; the artist born in the Philippines but raised in the U.S. Although having to deal with both assimilation and a Filipino identity, these performers can and do a) claim an authentic connection by birth to a homeland and therefore a mainstream, b) have heritage language competence, and c) undergo American assimilation marked as the Immigrant Other by both the non- Filipino and the American-born Filipino. In Alleluia’s case, her strong relationship to homeland is manifested in the innovating and inventing features of her most significant work. Both Jessica’s Filipina identity and the Filipino-ness of her creative work have been much discussed and debated (of course, not resolved), further complicated by her non-Filipino surname and her mixed ancestry, i.e. mestiza. However criticized or problematised, both artists can claim their work as Filipino/a by virtue of birthplace.

Gabe Baltazar, like Jessica, is also of mixed ancestry. However, unlike her, his Filipino-ness is neither contested nor foregrounded. He functions as a Local Boy of Japanese-Filipino mix, born in Hawai‘i when it was still a Territory, i.e., a second- tier American. Gabe embodies yet another category of the “America born” – not quite American, not quite Japanese, and not quite Filipino. By his own self-definition, he is a “minority minority” and a hapa, with Pinoy but one aspect of his ethnicity. His very successful artistic career has been in the mainstream world of jazz, where his principal identity is Local, an erasure of ethnicity in favor of identity by place. I personally find place enormously significant for his artistry. There is a spirituality in Gabe’s playing which I feel emanates from his Big Island birthplace and from his mother Chiyoko. She is still locally known for her strong relationship to Pele, the Hawaiian deity of fire and volcanoes, who, like the Baltazars, claims the Big Island of Hawai‘i as her place, her home.

The final archetype is the artist who comes to the U.S. as an adult, represented in the anthology by Remé Grefalda, Ralph Peña and Danongan “Danny” Kalanduyan. Danny came as an established artist (the only one to do so) by invitation of a major university. Ralph left the homeland for political reasons toward the end of the Marcos era and joined the American part of his family. Remé settled in the States before Martial Law as a young adult. All three formed the groundwork for their creative careers in the Philippines, bringing with them perspectives, skills and expressive grammars that would be challenged and re-formed in the volatile urban settings of the West and East coasts. They have carved out creative spaces that are clearly Filipino in positionality and trajectory, although quite different from one another.

Remé’s bi-national enculturation (early years in Hong Kong as well as the Philippines) leads to a particularized view of both homeland and diaspora. Her active involvement with the Philippine Educational Theater Association and the subsequent politicization of her persona as artist during the Marcos years add yet more complexity to a layered identity as dalagang Pilipina (young Filipino woman) in East Coast Fil-America.

Ralph is the quintessential Manileño, a child of the metropole with provincial roots from northern Luzon and the Visayas. His journey is a more familiar one for Filipinos in the U.S.: an initial period of alienation followed by attempts to break into the mainstream arts scene. After his relocation from the West Coast, Ralph helps to establish a struggling but successful Brown Space in the midst of the theatrical White Space on the East Coast.

In contrast, Danny, a kulintang virtuoso from a family of virtuosi, was born a minority in his homeland, a Muslim in a nation self-defined as Christian. In the transposed setting of the U.S. his artistry and his traditionality enjoy national acceptance and recognition; he is the only Filipino to receive the prestigious national Folk Heritage award from the National Endowment for the Arts, somewhat akin to the Philippines’ Gawad Pambansang Alagad ng Sining. The kulintang genre in the U.S. has been important for constructing a de-colonized and more “authentically Asian” Filipino-American identity – the music references Filipinos who never capitulated to Spanish or American colonial rule. Notably in the anthology Danny speaks as a Filipino rather than as a Maguindanaoan, e.g. his matter-of- fact discourse on the conqueror and the conquered. In closing this short exposition on artist archetypes, I observe that Danny’s American success story and his cultural odyssey abroad constitute an ironic subversion of the Moro-moro narrative: in the Kalanduyan version Muslim Principe comes to distant land, enthralls Princessa (perhaps named Columbia), and makes converts to kulintang throughout the country/kingdom, daw.

The four general archetypes I have suggested – the artist born in the U.S., the artist born in the Philippines and socialized in the U.S., the artist of mixed heritage whether born in the homeland or in the diaspora, and the established artist as immigrant – belie the richness and complexity of Filipino creativity in America. The term Filipino American does not nuance either quality. In the more emotionally charged domain of ethnicity, identity does not carry consensus. Filipinos born in the States often find themselves labeled as “not quite Filipino” or even as “Kano” by Filipinos from the homeland. In a reversal of contestation, the term Filipino American in some circles is claimed for Filipinos who had to grow up in the racist environment of America where minority status was both psychic and statistical. Who is the Filipino American or the Filipino- American? For the globalized present in which PAL, balikbayan boxes, Max’s and Goldilocks continually blur the distinctions of homeland and diaspora, the static nature and fixity of the term “Filipino American” is no longer so reassuring as a marker for ourselves as Filipinos (although convenient for federal funders, book stores, and census takers). In Hawai‘i the term is rarely encountered. Here the marker Filipino in Local discourse is sufficient; it assumes the individual is in Hawai‘i and therefore already functioning in America. The Filipino in America has the prerogative to access and to combine Filipinicity and Americanicity in infinite combinations and ratios. These ten “non-canonical” but nationally significant Filipino artists working in the U.S. exemplify both access and selective combination.

Conversations, an assemblage of people and voices, constitutes a celebration of the richness, the complexity, the access, and the selectivity we perform as Filipinos in America. As I bring this foreword with its performance metaphors to a close, I hope that the commentary in fact becomes an entr’acte, that it encourages you to re-visit all or some of the mga kuwento, bringing some of the thoughts from this hulit to bear on that re- reading. Theo, salamat gid

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