Like most Filipino Americans, playwright Boni P. Alvarez has been thinking a lot about Typhoon Haiyan in the past week.
“My grandmother and her immediate family are in Manila, so they’re okay,” he reports. “But I do have an aunt from the rural provinces whose house collapsed; she’s okay, but we haven’t heard anything more about my other relatives. Lines of communication are limited, which is devastating to us. You want to do something, but there’s nothing much to do but pray and donate to relief organizations.
“My parents are a reminder that everyone who comes here leaves many friends and family behind. And it’s so hard to get there. So while the impulse is to do something, the fact that it’s such a long distance from here leaves you feeling hopeless and impotent to help.”
On the other hand, that long distance between the two countries hasn’t prevented many Filipinos from feeling very close to the United States and Americans and very interested in American culture. That’s true of the Filipino characters in Alvarez’s latest play, Dallas Non-Stop, which opens Saturday at the Atwater Village Theatre, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera for Playwrights’ Arena.
A view of Southfork from Manila
Dallas Non-Stop is a riff on American pop culture, set in Manila a couple of years ago. “Dallas was and is an iconic American TV show. When I was watching it, in its heyday, I wondered how non-American audiences would react to seeing it. Was that my people’s main view of America, this big slice of Americana, along with Dynasty and Flamingo Road?”
In his play, a late-20s Filipina, Girlie, adores Dallas and is desperate to immigrate to the United States, especially to Texas. For Alvarez, Dallas was quintessential Texas: big oil, big money, big hair. “The fantasy element was appealing to me. It was real when she relates how in her [poor] village, only one family had a VCR machine, and videos of Dallas and the rest, sent by relatives in the US, were shown to the other villagers at three pesos a head. And that was their weekly dose of an American ideal — a world that was years delayed, not watched in real time, being influenced by television.
“I modeled Girlie after Victoria Principal’s role [in Dallas], Pamela, who was the outsider on the show: from poverty, sexy, marrying-up to Bobby [the character played by Patrick Duffy], which causes strife between the brothers [Bobby and J.R., who was played by Larry Hagman].”
Girlie is also an outsider, with suspicions about her being a golddigger, when it comes to American Brad, her new boss. But what, really, is the American dream she desires? “The problem is, there’s no pamphlet on that dream that America prints up and hands out to people abroad. So this version is being marketed to people like Girlie, who has grown up knowing about the elusive American Dream, and for her and others Dallas is it — her road map to her future — and Brad is the guy who owns the keys to the American Dream Door.”
Of course Filipino immigrants to America often learn that real life doesn’t match the glory of the dream. But Alvarez says that “most Filipinos believe that it’s better to struggle here in America rather than back home. It’s an ongoing promotion, this American Dream, which never seems to go away, in spite of how many people don’t achieve it.”
Alvarez, who is gay, admits that he couldn’t not write a gay character — “In spite of this huge Catholic overlay,” he notes, “Filipinos are accepting of gay people.” In Dallas Non-Stop, the gay Rodrigo is not only “fun,” but “he’s also a strong challenge for Girlie, who wants this new position of supervisor of the outsourcing office, and they butt heads in an aggressive way. So she uses sex to try and solidify her chances for the job.”
When asked about American racism, Alvarez comes up with an idea not often suggested: “Sometimes the racism isn’t overt, but is a given, when we are treated almost as an invisible people. When people think of ‘Asian-Americans,’ they generally don’t think Filipino, in part because our culture is quite a bit different from the Japanese, or Chinese, or Vietnamese.
“We were colonized by Spain, who ruled for 300 years, leaving a different flavor than the rest of Asia [or Asia Minor]; it’s an island culture.” Then, in 1899, after the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the Philippines to the US, which ruled it until the Japanese took over in World War II. After the war, the Philippines became an independent nation, but the American influence hardly vanished. And it “gave us an easier time to assimilate when we came over here.” As proof, he contends that there are more Filipinos in California than anywhere else in the world, outside of the Islands themselves.
Filipino Americans make up the second largest Asian community in the United States, and one of the most assimilated. Alvarez points to the matriarchal nature of Philippine society and the inclination of Filipinas who immigrate to America to get to know co-workers and their families.
He’s upbeat on the subject of assimilation. “It’s all positive; they absorb the flavor of the various cultures that surround them. We tend to be less insular, more apt to integrate with all the other cultures than just the dominant European ones. We get along with Latinos here because they remind us of our culture back home. My mom would make friends with the black women at work because they were familiar, and no one seems to have a beef with us Filipinos.”
Alvarez was born and raised in East Palo Alto. “My mom and dad were born in the Philippines, but immigrated here at different times — my mom in the 1960s and my dad a decade later.” His mother’s parents initially worked in the agricultural fields of Stockton, or as a maid in motels, “but when Silicon Valley began to bloom with internet companies, they moved there to work in electronic assembly, becoming middle-class.” Meanwhile, back in the Philippines, Alvarez’s father gained a degree from FEATI University in Manila and then immigrated to the US, where he found employment as an electrical engineer..
Looking for a breakthrough play
As a playwright, Alvarez, who is somewhere in his “late 30s,” has had one previous successful production in Los Angeles: Ruby, Tragically Rotund (2009, Playwrights’ Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center), also directed by Rivera. His other plays, which have been workshopped or produced around the country include Dusty de los Santos, The Special Education of Miss Lorna Cambonga, Poke Back, and The Wall.
He says he is ready for the next step as a functioning (i.e., working for money) playwright. When not writing, he works in a retail shop at the Grove — something to pay the bills and keep from going crazy.
“Most of my plays deal with Filipino issues, although my latest is about Mexican day laborers [The Wall], which has had some readings here and in Phoenix. Since I understand that ‘writing is re-writing,’ I must go back and do some revising.”
Ruby received a mostly successful response from audiences and critics. “I had great validation from the audience reaction. Those who are or were heavy-set identified with the play, and it struck chords with non-rotund folks, too.”
In the play, sibling rivalry between rotund Ruby and her thin sister arises. Says Alvarez, “A woman who was skinny came up to me one night and admitted that her more charismatic sister, who was heavy, had forced her to live in her shadow. To me, discovering that a secondary character [in the play] had influenced someone I never would have thought would be resentful, made me more respectful of how much our work can impact on others.”
Alvarez then “submitted [Ruby] nationally, but no second production of the play has ever materialized. My hopes for my big debut fizzled. But you just have to go back and keep writing.”
Dallas Non-Stop is to be his second full-length play produced. He was invited to join the Skylight Theatre PlayLab Unit last year, under the leadership of Shem Bitterman, in its inaugural season. “It’s a great chance to learn more about playwriting, as you write a play from scratch [Dusty de los Santos], and if accepted, you’re given a 10-performance run at their theater in Hollywood. I received great feedback and now I can revise it.”
Playwrights’ Arena and Skylight, which operate on Actors’ Equity’s 99-seat plan, champion LA-based playwrights, more than most of the larger Equity-contract companies. But Center Theatre Group invited Alvarez into its writers group after seeing Ruby. “I was there a year; it was a major learning curve for me. But the most important part of the process that you really learn from is a production, listening to actors recite your words. It’s not like the olden days, when playwrights were produced more often, with more actor- and director-time. You have to hear it out loud.” His play about witches [“aswang”] in the Philippines, Blood Letting, is to be workshopped this December at Skylight.
His many communities
Although he was born in America, Alvarez says he finds community with artists who were born in the Philippines, such as Rivera. But he also has the luxury of being a part of other larger communities, such as the USC theater community and the LGBT community. Currently single, he laughs off the notion of being lonely as a single gay man, let alone bitter. And love in his life? He quickly notes, “I find love in my work.” But he is obsessed with watching tennis and eating quality foods. “I’m a foodie — love fried chicken and dim sum. And when I travel, which isn’t often enough anymore, I try new foods.”
Alvarez acknowledges how much his family influences his work. “Because the culture is so matriarchal, there tends to be a large female presence in my work. And the culture is so very ‘dramatic.’ If you were to just transcribe real conversations between the women, it would be borderline-awful dialogue, as there’s no filter to it. Still, I always look for the subtext in the dialogue, and my Catholic background definitely colors my writing.”
Although more than a thousand dialects are spoken in the Philippines, with Tagalog the main national language, in the 20th Century English became the primary unifying language. And all things American are still the norm in their pop culture: “On my last trip there, I was amazed at how prevalent American culture is. Lady Gaga and Joe Jonas were performing there. And they’re obsessed with our American Idol TV show, especially when Jessica Sanchez, who is half-Filipina, advanced in the competition.”
So is Brad, the tall pink-man, the Ugly American? “No, he’s willing to absorb the local culture, but because he happens to figure into Girlie’s Dallas fantasy, he falls into her trap, intentionally or not.”
Alvarez remains tremendously grateful for the opportunities open to him, but on some level, “Girlie reflects my own desire to be a working playwright, which I don’t believe can happen soon, as I don’t know any newer playwrights who make their living solely on their plays. But it is what I want, dream or not.”
Meanwhile, perhaps his own efforts as a playwright can also help relieve the post-Haiyan suffering in the Philippines just a little. The producers say that all proceeds from tonight’s preview will go to Philippine relief efforts.
Dallas Non-Stop, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, LA 90039. Opens Saturday. Sat and Mon 8 pm; Sun 3 pm (except Mon Nov 18 and Dec 2 at 6 pm). Tickets: $25. dallas.brownpapertickets.com. 800-838-3006.
**All Dallas Non-Stop production photos courtesy of Playwrights’ Arena.