Carlos Bulosan’s “The Romance of Magno Rubio” is a short, very short story of a love sick Filipino migrant worker set in Depression era California – a Steinbeck-like tale of hope and betrayal told with the brevity of Hemmingway. It is a work of fiction woven with threads of truth as well. The American market crashing when the author was a youth ruined the world of his manhood. Bulosan and his generation saw in the Philippines crippling poverty, a people unschooled, and a tortured history. But what they did not see was a future. For that Bulosan, and many others of his generation, looked elsewhere. In July of 1930, Bulosan paid $75 to purchase passage aboard a freighter bound for Seattle, Washington.
He arrived in this country a thin, sickly 17-year-old, speaking little English with only three years of formal education. Wherever he traveled in the United States, racism awaited him. He would be demeaned for his skin color, marginalized for his nationality. In California he’d lose half a lung to tuberculosis, bosses exploited him in Alaska; the FBI targeted him In Oregon. In 1956, broke and jobless, Bulosan returned to Seattle to live with his brother. On the night of September 10 he went out drinking. At dawn the next morning he was discovered, comatose sprawled over the steps of City Hall. He died that same day. He was 43.
Now Seattle has, as it were, staked a claim to Bulosan. The city was stage to his first entrance and final exit, and Seattle’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery his final resting place. All of which makes Seattle a contender to throw those “Carlos Bulosan Day” celebrations. But I think the brass ring goes to the city of his birth, and by that I mean Los Angeles.
You see the operation in which Bulosan lost half his lung was done in L.A. The surgery was highly invasive. (They removed most of the ribs from the right side of his chest.) Afterwards he was confined to the Los Angeles County Sanitarium, now the USC Medical Center, for two years of monitored convalesce.
To fill his time someone brought Bulosan a book from the Public Library, and with that the migrant worker with three years of schooling was suddenly front row center as a new universe flared into existence before his eyes, a universe of literature. Bulosan went into hyper drive, reading a book every day, often more. He devoured the novels of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Twain; Shakespeare’s plays and Dickinson’s poetry; poured over the works of Freud, Plato and Gandhi. Then he took up the pen himself…and Carlos Bulosan was born.
Today he is one of the most widely read Asian-American writers, of interest not only as one of the first Asian to gain literary acceptance on the national level, but due also to his first hand commentary on racism in 20th century America. His poems and short stories are widely regarded as the preeminent voice of the Filipino experience in America, the nation he called “our unfinished dream.”
Clearly director Bernardo Bernardo together with Lonnie Carter, who adapted this Obie-Awarded play in 2002, were equally resolved on being faithful to Bulosan’s work, but never subservient. They run Bulosan’s characters strictly through the length of the play, then nearing the end, when one is confident the “photo finish” is framed, there is a slight divergence effected, the only alteration I believe Carter imposes, giving the play’s conclusion fresh resonance. But Carter is a playwright of great gifts, who employs them in ways that leaves audiences in slack-jarred astonishment. For example Carter, who calls himself “a middle-class white guy”, has an ear for the nuances of language that is staggering.
In “The Sovereign State of Boogedy Boogedy” he flings the language of the play at the feet of the audience like a gauntlet, almost daring them to understand the verbal swamp gas of “Language Lunacy” that he puts in the mouths of the characters.
In his more somber work he employs his skills in spinning spoken silk that delineate the speaker’s ethnicity with laser precision. At times backgrounds of the characters he populates his play with are obvious from the titles – “Bollywood”, “China Calls” – but the lion’s share of his characters is African-American as in “Trim” his play about Tiger Woods. Or they’re African-Africans like you find in his best historical work “Lost Boys of Sudan”.
In a master stroke, Director Bernardo distinguishes his production by turning to the heritage of the Philippines. Non Filipino audiences may have their first exposure to “Balagtasan”. This verbal dueling of sing-song rhyming taunts derives its name from the 19th century Filipino poet Francisco Balagtas, who choose to compose in Tagalog over Spanish.
Bernardo encompasses Eskrima as well the traditional martial arts of the Philippines with a beautifully choreographed sequence by Felix Roiles. By engaging these classical “methods” to serve the narrative Bernardo adroitly shifted the play from a simple tale of a simple man into a celebration of Filipino culture. He has also, I believe, given amplification of Bulosan’s own intent. This is the “New World,” the only non-immigrants on the continent are the bison. It doesn’t matter if you were brought here on the Mayflower or a slave ship, were fleeing the potato famine or the pogrom, Magno Rubio’s story is all our stories and ours his. Director Bernardo “methods” has also endowed the play with a distinctly American phrasing: we are all simple men, but epics flow in our veins.
A top notch cast has assembled for this production. Muni Zano as the old man looking back on events provides the evening with a firm foundation. Giovanni Ortega as Nick the college boy personifies the individual who persists in standing tall while the world wishes to keep him small. Elizabeth Rainey as the blond and buxom El Dorado of Magno Rubio’s passions dances the tightrope stretched from “beloved” to “bitch” with panache; and kudos to Ed Ramolete who seems to find inspiration in his hat, a frying pan or anywhere else he looks.
But the brightest star to flare across the night’s sky is Jon Jon Briones as Magno Rubio. “Filipino boy. Four-foot six inches tall. Dark as a coconut. Head small on a body like a turtle’s.” Not only does Briones fill that bill to a tee, but he brings an intensity to his portrayal of this gentle soul who looks out at his life from a prison of hope. If you’re leaving a performance unable to imagine any other actor in the role, when you’ve seen it played by half a dozen others before, it’s a pretty sure indicator you’ve just been in the presence of talent.
Seeing work this exceptional, I get the urge to tear though the city ringing doorbells and snatch up in my arms anyone answering and carry them to the Ford Theatre. But if you can get there on your own, I promise, you won’t be sorry you did.
The Romance of Magno Rubio/Ang Romansa ni Magno Rubio
[Inside] the Ford
2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East
Hollywood, CA 90068
(just off the 101, across the freeway from the Hollywood Bowl and south of Universal Studios)
(323) 461-3673 (GO 1-FORD)
Performances: Nov. 4 through Dec. 11
Thursdays @ 8 pm (English): Dec. 1, 8 (dark Nov. 24)
Fridays @ 8 pm (English): Nov. 4 (Open), 25; Dec. 2, 9
Saturdays @ 3 pm (Tagalog): Nov. 19, 26; Dec. 3, 10
Saturdays @ 8 pm (Tagalog): Nov. 5 (Open), 19, 26; Dec. 3, 10
Sundays @ 3 pm (English): Nov. 20, 27; Dec. 4*, 11
*The performance on Sunday, Dec 4 will be signed for the hearing impaired
FREE on-site (non-stacked)