By Linita Masters
With so much talk of diversity, or lack of, in Hollywood, I was pleased to be invited to the world premiere of the play “As Straw Before the Wind,” written by Filipino-American playwright Felix Racelis and directed by Lesley Asistio, in which the majority of the actors are of Filipino descent. I know that for myself, as I’m sure is the same for many Americans, I have very little knowledge of the history or struggles of Filipino and Filipino-Americans. In this story, Racelis attempts to give us a peek into the Filipino experience.
I walked into the Ruby Theatre in Hollywood, on a Sunday afternoon, and was greeted by a lovely and warm Racelis. While in my seat, I was treated to traditional Filipino music playing over the speakers, and a slide show montage projected on stage (by Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez) which served to set the tone for the play.
The story revolves around Filipina immigrant, Nene Santos, who, as a child, was assaulted and raped, as well bearing witness to her parents’ gruesome execution during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines during WWII. She escapes and immigrates to the U.S. with her uncle to start a new life. They end up in San Gabriel, California. It’s now 1993, and sixty-five year old RN, Nene Santos (Tita Pambid), runs a convalescent facility with the help of her daughter Pilita (Sarnica Lim). The small care-facility is home to two residents: A wheelchair bound, retired, Filipino-American Army Captain, named Poncing Enrile (Muni Zano), whose joy in life is to get his chance to pinch the behind of Pilita. The other resident is the white, widowed Mrs. Mildred Novak (Anita Borcia) who suffers from Alzheimer’s and spends her days reminiscing with her dead husband Charlie, and to the annoyance of Nene, likes to sneak a smoke whenever she gets the chance.
The facility has hit some hard times and Nene is convinced that getting a loan to expand the facility will allow her to take on more patients and provide them all with shiny new accommodations. Unfortunately, she gets turned down for the business loan and is forced to take on a new patient that must room with Poncing, who protests to the roommate.
Nene and Pilita’s relationship is strained when Pilita announces that she is engaged and will be leaving her job at the facility to become a housewife. This doesn’t sit well with Nene, who becomes enraged as she feels abandoned and betrayed. Lim plays Pilita with a mild-mannered believable reserve opposite Pambid’s desperate reactionary and sympathetic portrayal of Nene which is most effective during the flashback scenes. Nene’s is played out as flawed and somewhat abusive to her daughter, and to her patients, grabbing the arm of one and retraining the other.
Muni Zano plays “Captain” Poncing Enrile who trusts only Pilita to touch him or care for him and takes every opportunity to get handsy with her and throw suggestive comments in her direction. Zano provides some humor and memorably funny moments to the play. While Pilita is wincing from the smell during his bedpan change, he refers to his deposit as “his aromatherapy.”
Anita Borcia plays the role of Mildred, provides some humorous moments as well. But Borcia also supplies some of the more heartwarming and poignant moments, when Mildred recalls moments she spent with her now departed husband and how much she wants to see him again.
The character of Poncing’s daughter Maria Enrile (Rochelle Lozano), was small and incidental. Doan Nguyen and Gabriel Garcia were utilitarian in their multitude of characters from Loan Officer to Japanese Military Officer.
There are several instances that trigger traumatic war flashbacks for Nene, which are accompanied by well timed lighting changes (lighting design by Jim Niedzialkowski) that make the scenes much more impactful. The set is minimal, which added to the intimacy, and gave you the sense that you were peeking through the window into someone’s real life.
My one technical issue is with the slow pace of the set transitions, forcing the stage to go black ,which at one point seemed to go on longer than the scene before it, while watching cast member move set pieces into place.
There was also a confusing moment during the final scene where you realize , although Lim gives a wonderfully tender performance as Pilita, the 30-something year old is miscast as a character that should have been closer to 55 for the ending to be plausible.
Overall “As Straw Before the Wind”, successfully covers several themes that include the helplessness of being elderly and sick, the inevitability of caring for our aging family members, conflicts between family and the difficult struggle dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Racelis manages to balance the themes and Asistio’s slower pace gives you a chance to think about the scene and characters as they flow from one scene to the next. Most importantly it covered the themes from a Filipino-American perspective, giving a voice to a segment of our population that has an important story to be told, which Racelis and Asistio do wonderfully.
I had the chance to ask Felix Racelis and Lesley Asistio a few questions:
The Hollywood 360: Are the story and characters in As Straw Before The Wind inspired from people in your own life?
Felix Racelis: Definitely. The character of Nene is a composite of several women I knew growing up. One of my piano teachers was very ambitious and owned a number of convalescent homes, like the one in the play. And the mother of one of my closest friends growing up shared some of her family’s horrifying and tragic stories during the Japanese occupation. The scene where Nene witnesses her parents being killed and thrown into a river is based on a true story. One of my mother’s closest friends was one of the last nurses on the island of Corregidor before the Japanese took control of the island in 1942. And the character of Captain Poncing Enrile is also based on one of my father’s oldest friends, who was a Captain in the U.S. Army.
What I recall, though, is that with the exception of my friend’s mother, my parents and their friends and contemporaries preferred not to discuss what happened during the war. It was a subject that was rarely discussed.
The Hollywood 360: Do you, as a Filipino/ American feel included in the discussion of diversity in the entertainment industry?
Felix Racelis: I do feel included in the discussion, even though I also feel that many of the changes I would like to see are happening really slowly. I worked for many years in public broadcasting and in some of the stations where I was employed I was either the only Filipino or one of two. But I think we’re at a moment when change is really occurring in entertainment. With My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend we FINALLY have a male Filipino romantic lead.
With the story of Nene in “As Straw Before the Wind”, I didn’t find the right company or group to partner with, so I felt compelled to produce it on my own.
The Hollywood 360: What and who were your inspirations for becoming a writer?
Felix Racelis: I developed an appreciation for the works of playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and George Bernard Shaw. With Williams, it was the expression of the range depth of human emotion that appealed to me, whereas with Shaw, it was his intelligence and wit.
The Hollywood 360: Why theatre?
Felix Racelis: I appreciate the intimacy of theatre, and the transformative, cathartic moments of magic that can occur. I’m also developing a growing appreciation for the spiritual aspects of theatre, which has its early roots in the church, for the coming together of individuals of different backgrounds all focused on sharing a common experience.
The Hollywood 360: What do you hope people come away with after seeing As Straw Before The Wind?
Felix Racelis: I hope that people come away with an appreciation of the sacrifices made and the hardships faced by the WWII generation that survived the war first hand. I think many of them suffered what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which has never been treated.
The Hollywood 360: What drew you to As Straw Before the Wind?
Lesley Asistio: Initially, it was because it was a play written by a Filipino American about Filipino Americans. But when I read the play, it resonated with me because my grandma survived the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines. When she was still alive, she told me that she was pregnant with my father and she was hiding in the jungle from the Japanese and a Japanese soldier put a gun to her head. She said all she could do was pray. By the grace of God, the soldier let her go. She also told me that she gave birth to my father in the jungle and had to jump off of a cliff to get away from the Japanese. When I read Felix’s play, I was reminded of these stories about my grandma and I believe that other people should know about this part of history that many don’t.
The Hollywood 360: Was it difficult for you to gain support for your career direction from your family?
Lesley Asistio: Yes, and I still don’t feel like my family is very supportive of me having a career in the arts. They see it as a hobby and not as a career. They would rather have me pursue a career in education than in theatre. When I was growing up, I was constantly bombarded with the words, “You should become a nurse.” In fact, I used to want to become a nurse and that’s what my next project is about. I was just awarded a grant from the Puffin Foundation to develop my latest solo performance. It’s a farce about a famous Filipina American solo performer that leaves her life of acting to become a nurse. I hope to challenge stereotypes with this production and help young Filipina Americans believe that they can be whatever they want to be.
The Hollywood 360: Do you ever feel that the Filipino/ American is left out in the discussion of diversity in the entertainment industry?
Lesley Asistio: Definitely. Especially now, Asian Americans are a hot topic in the entertainment industry with Matt Damon starring in the hero of The Great Wall of China and Scarlett Johansson getting CG to look more Asian in Ghost in the Shell, even A-list Asian American actors are not being cast in big budget films and Filipino Americans are simply not included in the dialogue.
The Hollywood 360: What type of walls, if any, have you hit being a woman, and a woman of color in pursuing your career?
Lesley Asistio: I think that theatre is a male-centric industry. There was a study about the different careers in theatre and in almost every category, there were more males than females that held jobs. I think it was in the regional theatres. There are more playwrights, directors, artistic directors, designers, etc. When it comes to diversity, that’s a whole different side of the coin. In that same study, it showed that women of color were the minority. But I don’t want to play the race and gender cards. I don’t believe that I have hit any walls. If anything, being a woman of color has opened me up to many opportunities and I see walls as merely obstacles for me to conquer and overcome.
The Hollywood 360: What do you hope people come away with after seeing As Straw Before The Wind?
Lesley Asistio: I hope that people would have a deeper understanding and appreciation for what the Filipino people went through during World War II, especially people by my generation.
“Are They As Straw Before The Wind, And Like Chaff Which The Storm Carries Away?-The phrase. “as straw before the wind” is from the Book of Job 21:18
The program lists facts about Filipino immigrants who came to live in the U.S. after the war that most people are not aware of.
- Nearly 1 million Filipinos (approximately 57,000 soldiers and 900,000 civilians) were killed during WWII.
- Filipinos constitute the largest Asian minority group in California.
- The Philippines is the world’s largest provider of foreign trained nurses with over 400 nursing schools and 80,000 nursing students.
- Up until 2009, when President Obama signed the Filipino Veteran’s Equity Compensation Act, Filipino American vets had not received compensation for fighting in the war. They now receive $15,000 if they lived in the U.S. and $9,000 if they still lived in the Philippines.
Get your tickest now “As Straw Before the Wind” runs through September 4th, 2016 at:
The Ruby Theatre at The Complex
6476 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, CA
Fridays and Saturdays 8pm and Sundays 3pm.
For tickets call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006 or strawbefore.brownpapertickets.com.
Facebook page: https://facebook.com/AsStraw1/