Jessica Hagedorn’s entire body of work focuses on Filipino Americans’ struggle to discover a place in a new culture without having to relinquish every element of the home culture. In her plays—as in her novels, essays, and poetry—Hagedorn explores a number of significant issues, among them the search for or formation of identity, the clash of cultures, and the problems inherent in an immigrant’s attempts to fit into a new community. Although she is much better known as a novelist than as a dramatist, she has produced an interesting body of mixed-media and multimedia work for the stage, pieces that are closer to performance art than to the traditional play format.
Hagedorn’s work defies simple categorization, instead straddling the boundaries between high and low culture, and crossing between and among genres. In theater circles and to theatergoing audiences, Hagedorn is best known in as a performance artist, and her plays are infused with distinctively performative elements drawn from music, dance, poetry slams, storytelling, and role playing. Except for the themes on which Hagedorn focuses—themes that surface in many American plays—her work has little in common with conventional American drama, even with contemporary ethnic drama. Instead, her pieces belong with the work of theater artists and innovators such as Karen Finley, John Leguizamo, Ping Chong, and Ntozake Shange.
A multimedia theater piece, Tenement Lover incorporates film, dance, poetry, music, and narration with slides projected on a wall, a radio newscaster providing updates on a current political crisis, and a television that broadcasts throughout the piece. Focusing on the experiences of two immigrants, Bongbong, who never appears onstage, and Ludivinda, who watches television obsessively, the play uses dream visions, poems, letters, reflections, mime, dialogue, and monologue to dramatize the clash between a culture of origin and American culture (represented by New York), chronicling an immigrant’s gradual assimilation into an alien environment that he initially finds to be impossibly confusing. Two actors playing several characters mime several tense encounters while a Narrator and a band provide commentary.
The subtitle, no palm trees/in new york city, immediately signals the play’s focus on bifurcations, on the distance between cultures, on the difference between reality and dreams, on the divide between powerful nations and developing countries. A series of slides featuring scenes from the Philippines functions as a backdrop to the opening narration telling the story of Bongbong, twenty-nine years old and marooned in New York, homesick, jobless, taking comfort in letters to his artist friend, Frisquito. Bongbong’s story is followed by that of Ludivinda, whose rambling monologue tells her tale of marriage to a marine who brought her from her home in the Philippines to a roach-infested New York tenement. Like Bongbong, she is homesick and unhappy, taking refuge in television. As the Narrator and the band members recount and enact the immigrants’ stories, a blonde Sunbather in dark glasses appears and unrolls a length of barbed wire across the stage, neatly delineating her space from that of the rest of the world, emphasizing the distance between her and those who cannot afford leisurely vacations. As the Sunbather, on her side of the wire barrier, lolls languidly in her lounge chair beneath a beach umbrella, sipping a drink brought by an obsequious waiter, and clearly unconcerned with the rest of world on the other side of the barbed wire, Ludivinda watches television in her dreary apartment, a guerrilla fighter creeps out of the underbrush, slides of mountain tribes are projected on a backdrop, and a newscaster announces that Pope John Paul has publicly scolded Philippine president Marcos at a reception in the presidential palace.
The band performs songs that mirror the stage action. Singing “Sleazy Desire/New York Reggae” and “Tenement Lover,” the band members paint a harsh picture of immigrant life, underscoring the displacement and alienation that characterize Bongbong’s and Ludivinda’s daily existence and commenting on the disparity between their fantasies of life in the United States and the realities they face daily. Ultimately, Bongbong does come to terms with his situation, but only after he has a dream in which he learns to fly but is still unable to catch Frisquito who flies still higher. Meanwhile, the Sunbather becomes aware of the guerrilla, who has entered her space and begins to stalk her, and she backs away from him in terror and disappears offstage. The play ends with the band singing about “Ming the Merciless,” described as “the asian nightmare/ the yellow peril.” In a culture that identifies Asians with cartoon villains, Bongbong and Ludivinda will never fully assimilate; they will always be outsiders, forever on the wrong side of any power relationship.
Teenytown is a performance piece that incorporates poetry, songs, and dialogue written singly by Hagedorn, Laurie Carlos, and Robbie McCauley, as well as material cowritten by the three collaborators. Written specifically for performance by the three authors, Teenytown relies heavily on the specific talents and performance styles of those individuals. Through an episodic structure that borrows heavily from several forms of popular entertainment, the piece explores the pervasiveness of racism in popular entertainment and the media. Five actors (including the three authors) play several different characters, acting, singing, and dancing in front of television monitors showing vintage racist cartoons and films, as well as historic film...
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