ALLEN GABORRO Reviews
Stage Presence: Conversations with Filipino American Performing Artists, Edited by Theodore S. Gonzalves
(Meritage Press, San Francisco and St. Helena, 2007)
[First published in Philippine News, May 23-29, 2008]
It is always a privilege to be able to listen to performing artists as they expound upon the creative energies and efforts that make them what they are: gifted purveyors of a highly-dynamic art form. As a Filipino American, it is an even greater pleasure to read the comments and observations made by FilAm performing artists on the cultural, personal, and artistic aspects of their craft.
In Stage Presence: Conversations with Filipino American Performing Artists, ten performing artists are placed in the spotlight as they attest to the experiences and perspectives that underpin their lives as FilAm artists. University of Hawai’i Professor Ricardo D. Trimillos writes in the book’s foreword that Stage Presence brings back memories of the “komedya” or “Moro-moro” folk theater. The theater’s plays return again and again to a basic storyline in which a Christian prince travels to a mysterious land where he will meet a Muslim princess. In the end, the princess surrenders her heart to the prince, but only after he has overcome several obstacles.
Trimillos draws a parallel from the Moro-moro to the FilAm performing artists in “Stage Presence.” He writes about how these artists, like their Moro-moro counterparts, have achieved some upsurge of accomplishment after persevering through foreign and adverse circumstances. Each artist, in articles that have been proficiently edited by University of Hawai’i at Manoa Assistant Professor Theodore S. Gonzalves, explains to us in what way they have engaged in this bi-cultural process.
Trimillos stresses that he is not comfortable with the term “Filipino American” and its reductive connotations. He writes that “the static nature and fixity of the term ‘Filipino American’ is no longer so reassuring as a marker for ourselves as Filipinos.” In flouting one-dimensional designations that have been traditionally used to classify Filipino Americans as a whole, Trimillos renders four “nuanced” archetypes that more eruditely represent the FilAm artists featured in Stage Presence: 1) Artists of Filipino descent born in the United States; 2) Filipino-born artists who grew up in the US; 3) Filipino American artists of “mixed ancestry” either American- or Filipino-born; and 4) the “established [Filipino] artist” immigrant to the US.
One of the book’s esteemed subjects is Pearl Ubungen, an avant-garde dance choreographer and cultural activist. In combining historical research with her artistic endeavors, Ubungen wants to transform the arts into something that would avoid being elitist and be widely-available to anyone and everyone. Her social perspective is Foucaultian in that it is formulated in terms of power relations. As a teacher steeped in postcolonial theory, Ubungen called on her students to “look deeply into structural manifestations of inequity and forms of domination at play in our society.” She incorporates this sensibility into her dance form and content which she puts forward as “a practice of cultural resistance.”
There is also a chapter on Allan S. Manalo, a standup comedian, freelance writer, and, according to his bio, a “prostitute of mediocracy.” Manalo is one of the founders of the FilAm comedy group, “tongue in A mood.” He recalls being asked to compose some comedy skits for the Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor’s (PACE) annual “Pilipino Cultural Night.” The skits were designed to be, as Manalo states, “a combination of scenes driven by the search, revelation, and celebration of our Filipino identity.” Manalo confesses that the PCN occasion enabled him to discover something that “I didn’t even know I was looking for—a validation of my own personal identity as a Filipino slash American.”
Equally engrossing in “Stage Presence” are the chapters on Jessica Hagedorn, Reme A. Grefalda, and Alleluia Panis, all intrepid, industrious, and artistically-minded women in their own right. The book’s sections on other notable FilAm performing artists only enhances the sense of commitment and passion that these gifted individuals feel in expressing the Filipino side of their self-identity. It is an identity that continues to grow ever more complex and articulate as it is shaped and honed through the filter of the American social landscape.
It is no easy thing for a FilAm artist, indeed for any FilAm at all, to preserve their “Filipinoness” in the whirlwinds of America’s hypercapitalistic and technocultural society. But the artists in Stage Presence cling steadfastly to that identity in the face of all the external forces that would tear them away from it. Keeping faith with that elusive identity is a lifelong struggle that all FilAm artists act out through the language and symbolism of their art.
Allen Gaborro is an art and book reviewer for the Philippine News weekly. He is also a freelance writer who has written historical, political, and cultural articles. Allen is a member of the Philippine American Writers' Association (PAWA) of Northern California. He is based in San Francisco, California.