Review of Actor's Actors' staging of "Mother Tongue"

Review of Mother Tongue
By Walter Ang
May 11, 2001

"Mother Tongue" is overwhelming at first glance. After all, it explores race, culture, language, identity, homosexuality, and family in two hours' time. The list goes on, but this latest play from Actors' Actors, Inc. does not choke its audience and serves up a full course of ideas that's done in a funny, poignant manner.

Written by Paul Stephen Lim, "Mother Tongue"'s protagonist is David Lee, a Tsinoy (Filipino born of Chinese descent) who immigrates to America and becomes an English teacher in Kansas. The play is semi autobiographical and goes on to show the inner workings of Lee's mind, more to the point, conversations with his mother in his head.

Lim explores what makes a person who he is. Are we the language we speak, our skin color, where our parents are from? The play brings to light Filipinos who live in a bicultural, displaced world. Most Filipinos have at least one family member abroad, be that America, Saudi Arabia or China, so the idea of a Filipino who does not live in the Philippines is not new. However, the intricacies of balancing two cultures is rarely discussed.

Sentiments are sometimes reduced to selfish requests for pasalubong and resentful looks at relatives who cannot speak Tagalog because it seems they don't try hard enough to learn. For those of us who know what it's like to grow up between countries and cultures, this play hits home right on the dot.

Neither here nor there

How interesting, strange, and funny is it that a Chinese man who grew up in the Philippines teaches English in America? Ask your Tsinoy friends and they will easily relate. Like David Lee/Paul Stephen Lim, I also had to grow up learning English, Tagalog and two Chinese dialects but feel most comfortable using English.

When David's father dies, a Catholic nun questions his mother's Chinese mourning traditions. David's mother answers, "We are Chinese first, then we are Christians." She goes on to perform a Chinese ritual before her husband gets a Christian burial. This was an another interesting scene for me as most Tsinoys do have altars at home where Buddha and Sto. Nino sit congenially beside each other.

This is the kind of play I wish Tsinoys and Fil-Ams would watch since it tells their story of cultural displacement. While the list of cultural quirks in the play go on, at the core is a man's struggle to find himself, a journey any audience would recognize regardless of race. And when David's mother keeps trying to find him a nice girl to marry (among many other motherly things), everyone will recognize the struggle between family obligations and personal freedom.

The Past
Last year, AAI staged another of Lim's plays, "Faces of Clay" at the Batute Theater of CCP. That venue would have been better suited for this play as well. The material needed a more intimate space and the GSIS stage seemed to swallow the actors.

Bart Guingona played Lee under Chris Millado's direction. My dream of seeing actors Nieves Campa and Miren Alvarez together on one stage have finally come true. The mother-daughter tandem is a delight to watch with Campa as Lee's mother Lillian and Alvarez as the young Lillian. They have the ability to convey a full lauriat of emotions with just subtle movements of their faces.

With set designer IƱigo Elizalde, Millado made everyone and everything from Lee's past appear in spectral white. Ghostly images of a past Lee is desperate to forget. It comes full circle at the end of the play when Lee finally gets his green card and is branded by his mother as nothing better than a "white ghost" -- a Chinese derogatory term for Caucasians.

The play is liberally filled with puns and wordplay. It would have been fun, but the jokes were dangerously on the edge of turning into the kind that only stuffy and insufferable English majors who read Russian novelists would laugh, excuse me, snootily chuckle at. The actors made great efforts to pronounce Chinese words but could have used more coaching. It would be interesting if there where Tsinoy actors who were available to cast. Would their personal experiences and knowledge of Chinese infuse a different dynamic to the play?

With the current rallies at the EDSA Shrine going on, the theater wasn't filled up. AAI really should consider another run and marketing it to Tsinoys. Surprisingly, word must've already gotten around since there were Tsinoys seated beside and in front of me. I was very surprised since Tsinoys who watch straight plays are rarer than blue moons.

On a side note, after the play, my friends and I were relieved beyond belief when we caught a passing CCP shuttle. We felt extremely lucky to catch one. Usually, if we commute to the GSIS theater, there aren't any shuttles left when the play ends. We have to walk in the dark (and sometimes the under the rain) all the way to Roxas Boulevard just to catch a ride back home.

In the future, I wish AAI and other theater companies who use the GSIS Theater would provide at least one shuttle for its commuting audience. The venue is just so far away and the streets inadequately lighted that walking just doesn't seem safe (and probably isn't) so late in the night.