Pintig Cultural Group

at Greenview Arts Center

Do you know what a Filipino feels in America? I mean one who is aware of the intricate forces of chaos? He is the loneliest thing on earth. There is so much to be appreciated all about him–beauty, wealth, power, grandeur. But is he a part of these luxuries? . . . He is enchained, damnably, to his race, his heritage. He is betrayed. –Carlos Bulosan, May 2, 1938

Treachery marks much of the history of Filipino-American relations–from the initial betrayal of the 1898 revolution against Spain, launched by Jose Rizal and Emilio Aguinaldo and turned by the U.S. into an empire grab, to the recent unholy alliance with the predatory Marcoses.

In this country the ugliness continued in racist anger at the former colonial subjects who dared come here to pursue ideals we long ago abandoned. The cruel consequences of this contempt are powerfully presented in America Is in the Heart, the 1946 autobiographical novel by Filipino poet and writer Carlos Bulosan (1913-1956). The work chronicles a little over a decade (1930-1941) of Bulosan’s struggle to be a better American than the ones he met, a time in which he organized unions and fought discrimination. The novel ultimately exalts the resilience and resolve of all American immigrants and migrant workers.

Bulosan, the son of sharecroppers from the village of Mangusmana, was only 17 when he reached Seattle. Joining two brothers who had arrived earlier, he labored in Alaskan canneries, Washington apple orchards, and southern California hotels and fields, picking crops for $2.75 a day. At each place he and his fellow workers were fleeced by labor and management thugs. “I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I didn’t commit,” he declared.

The persecution Bulosan describes is as familiar as a report from Amnesty International. Filipinos were reviled as “brown monkeys.” Signs warned them not to enter stores and washrooms. If seen with a white woman, men were assaulted on the spot. Bulosan captures this in words that burn with indignation.

They burn again in this faithful adaptation by Filipino playwright and director Chris Millado, a valuable first production by the Pintig Cultural Group. A folk narrative of a 20th-century hero’s journey, Millado’s script treats Bulosan’s American experiences as a “descent into hell.” His hopeful young emigre seeks the ideal in America and finds instead bigoted snobs, torturing vigilantes, and an economy that works by keeping Filipino workers drunk, indebted, or imprisoned.

Millado sets his play in 1936 in a hospital where Bulosan was treated for tuberculosis and where he learned his power as a writer. Millado then uses flashbacks to take us to incidents in the novel. The results resemble a Filipino Grapes of Wrath, buoyed by the same populist sympathies and the same belief in the superiority of endurance to hate. The story, told in English and Tagalog, isn’t always accessible, the depiction of white racism is as wooden and stereotypical as it’s satirical, and the women depicted seem developed only in their suffering (especially Eileen O’Dell, the white communist who gives Carlos a cause). Nonetheless America Is in the Heart is trenchantly authentic, an unfiltered survivor’s story.

Millado’s painstaking staging and his hardworking, awesomely dedicated cast of 20 offer a trove of powerful stage pictures. Moving across Eric Manabat’s black-box set, they depict the drudgery of piling crates in a cannery, the danger of jumping freight trains, the eerie exhilaration of a cockfight. They also create a solidarity rally of Mexican and Filipino farm workers and a battle with strikebreakers that’s slowed down into raw terror.

Anchoring the action is Larry Leopoldo’s heartfelt Bulosan. Leopoldo convincingly alternates between the tubercular Carlos on his philosophical sickbed and the hero whose story becomes the stuff of legends. (In one searing moment he’s stripped naked and tarred and feathered.) Fine support comes from Dan Tagorda and Joseph Palma as Carlos’s confused and fratricidal brothers, Evelyn Masbaum as their nearly forgotten mother, and Godwin Carmona as a union warrior who reminds us of sacrifices we forget at our peril.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ramon Mascarenas.