East West Players Offers a Platform for New Work by Asian American Writers

JANM has a long history of collaborating with East West Players, the nation’s leading Asian American theater troupe. Among other activities, the museum is proud to host A Writer’s Gallery, a semi-regular reading of new works by Asian American playwrights. On Thursday, March 19, East West Players will present a reading of Giovanni Ortega’s Iyakan Blues (The Criers), a comedy about a group of women who work as professional criers—people who are paid to weep at funerals.

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On the eve of this latest collaboration, JANM reached out to Snehal Desai, Artistic Associate/Literary Manager at East West Players, and Giovanni Ortega, playwright, to find out more about the series and about Ortega’s play.

JANM: JANM began hosting A Writer’s Gallery way back in 1996. It now occurs roughly semi-annually. Snehal, can you talk about the significance of the series, and how it came about?

Snehal Desai: Lately, the series has functioned as an incubator—a place for the development of works we are considering as part of our season at East West Players. It is immensely helpful for our playwrights to have workshop time to develop their plays and then have a public reading of it, followed by a talkback. We have found that these readings really bring the community and audiences into the process of premiering a new work. The Tateuchi Democracy Forum is a perfect space for this kind of reading and the conversation that follows afterwards.

JANM: How do you go about selecting the writers who get featured?

SD: The writers and the works get selected in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are tied to exhibitions that are being presented at JANM, or they are inspired by dialogues currently happening in the community. Other times, a writer with whom we have a relationship will bring us a play that they are developing and want to read publicly.

Giovanni Ortega. Image courtesy of the artist.
Giovanni Ortega.
Image courtesy of the artist.

JANM: Giovanni, is professional crying really a thing?

Giovanni Ortega: Professional crying is actually a real thing in different countries. It is still done in Chinese, Sardinian, Irish, and Middle Eastern societies, just to name a few. Mourners from Chongqing, China, and Taiwan were recently on the news. The 1993 Indian film Rudaali featured a character who cried at funerals, and going back further, there were professional mourners in Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novel, Le Père Goriot. The basic concept behind crying at funerals is to allow the person who passed to have a good welcome on the other side. The extent of the wails and cries also shows the reverence and respect this person had while living.

JANM: What inspired you to write Iyakan Blues (The Criers)? Did you draw from personal experience?

GO: The initial inspiration for the play was the women in my family. I was raised by my two grandmothers, and then my mom after I moved to the U.S. [from the Philippines] when I was a teen. Growing up, I was always surrounded and influenced not only by my lolas (grandmas) but also their sisters and my aunts. They were all strong-willed women who had very distinct opinions about life.

Regardless of whatever adversity, burdens, and struggles they had to endure to survive, the underlying force was laughter to get through it all. I witnessed that this was their tool in survival, regardless of how difficult it got. One of my earliest memories was going to the wake of my Lolo [Grandpa] Tute, where tears and laughter went hand in hand. Having such experiences allowed me to realize that I can use the theme of death as a means to laugh, and writing this play was a great opportunity to do so.

There are also very few stories about the Filipino diaspora. There is so much more to our country than Imelda, beaches, karaoke, dancing, pancit [Filipino noodles], and poverty. Ours is a rich culture, not unlike the U.S. in its mixture of race, religion, and cultures. My own heritage being Chinoy (Filipino and Chinese) as well as Spanish and Native American is a testament to our variety. I wanted to share different perspectives that people have in regards to what being Filipino is.

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