By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)
A stage for conversation
"We return to the theater as a place to connect and remember our humanity. We return to the Filipino radical tradition of theater as a practice of love, critique, hope, and even revolution," began Professor Christine Balance from Cornell University for the live-stream of the recording of the play "The Romance of Magno Rubio" on June 4, 2020.
The play was produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company in New York City and filmed in Manila in 2003. This screening event was followed by a live discussion with Dr. Joi Barrios from UC Berkeley and actors Jojo Gonzalez, Ron Domingo, and Ramón de Ocampo from the 2003 production.
The event was organized by Balance and Professor Lucy Burns from UCLA and sponsored by Cornell Southeast Asia Program, UCLA Department of Asian American Studies, UCLA Asian American Studies Center, UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and Cornell Department of Asian American Studies.
Based on a short story by Carlos Bulosan, the play adaptation tells the story of Magno Rubio, a Filipino farmworker in Stockton, California, and his long-distance courtship of Clarabelle, a white woman from Arkansas, in the 1930s. Magno responses to Clarabelle’s advertisement in a "lonely hearts" magazine and sustains a romantic relationship with her exclusively through letters. He invests years pursuing her and sending gifts in hopes of building a life together with her in the future. He gradually realizes that his fantasies and dreams do not always work out in reality.
The play is largely told in verse with rhymed couplets seamlessly woven throughout raunchy conservations between Rubio and his lively co-workers about love, success, masculinity, racism, and their Filipino identity and culture.
From script to stage
The play began as a workshop with just the opening lines written. During the Q&A, Jojo Gonzalez, who received an Obie Award for his performance in this play, held the original script in his hand, "What struck me is that the pages are not even numbered because it was about 100 pages of verse and it doesn’t say who says what at all."
Ramón de Ocampo, who also received an Obie Award for his performance, echoed Gonzalez’s sentiment, "This came together as a collaboration from the beginning." The actors had to decide which line would best fit a character and played multiple roles until they found that perfect combination.
"We would play off of each other and discover things together. Really, we were scared," recalled Ron Domingo, who originated the role of Prudencio in the play. "We don’t have time to give credit to everybody. Let’s just tell the story as best as we can."
A story of Filipino identity
Gonzalez first tried to play the character Claro, who came to the U.S. as a migrant worker. "Claro has these dreams of coming here, making money and then going back to the Philippines and living like a king," said Gonzalez. "That’s not his life, nor was it for any of the manongs brought over to the U.S. All of their dreams were shattered. But they were resilient and went from one place to another chasing that dream."
When Gonzalez came to the U.S., his first job was to clean the toilets in a Burger King. Transitioning from working as an actor in the Philippines to cleaning toilets, he felt "that dehumanizing experience where you were someone in the old country and you come here and you are nobody and you are stepped on and exploited. Some of us never get out of that." Still, he shares in the manongs' mentality of working hard to break free from those systems of exploitation.
Ocampo, who is also an immigrant to the U.S., did not know the history of the manongs. "I don't think I’m alone among Filipino Americans in saying that the fact that there were men like me who tilled the soil of this country only became incredibly clear because of this play."
Ma-Yi Theater Company has a long history of including Asian American writers and stories, especially those that speak to the Filipino American experience. In discussing the legacy of "The Romance of Magno Rubio," Dr. Joi Barrios, a playwright herself, added, "I think what is special about the play is that it was made by a theater company that also negotiates its place within the landscape of American theater."
The play was also performed for audiences in the Philippines. Gonzalez recollected, "When I reminisce about our experience in Manila, there were nights of gritty bliss to be back home to perform this."
The play was intentionally brought to American cities that carry histories of Filipino migration. The play is set in Stockton which was a popular destination for many manongs at the time. Despite the presence of "Little Manila" there, many faced racial discrimination and violence.
The late Professor Dawn Mabalon from San Francisco State University spearheaded the effort to bring the play to Stockton in 2008. Mabalon was the author of Little Manila is in the Heart and an alumna of the UCLA Asian American Studies M.A. program.
When the play opened in Stockton, Ocampo reflected, "It’s an enormous awakening. It connects you to a history that might be painful, but honestly reflects this country. Until you hear your language spoken and see people that look like you in a venue that is public, open and real, you can not fully understand why representation is so important."