There’s a groundbreaking new musical at Ma-Yi Theatre Company featuring an all-Filipino cast and creative team. Felix Starro by Jessica Hagedorn and Fabian Obispo, based on the short story by Lysley Tenorio, is the first time a musical by and with Filipino Americans is being performed Off-Broadway.
Ralph B. Peña, a founding member of Ma-Yi and the company’s current Artistic Director, staged the new musical. Mr. Peña and the ridiculously talented Diane Phelan (Broadway’s The King and I, School of Rock), answered a few of my questions about a wide range of topics including the process of the show and their boba tea preference.
What has the creative process been like for Felix Starro? Why this show now?
Ralph B. Peña - Felix Starro took five years to get to the stage. During that time, Jessica and Fabian tinkered with the story with some input from me, but I generally stayed out of their way to allow the story to bloom naturally. Adaptations are always tricky, but Jessica had a very clear idea of what story she wanted to tell, and Fabian was prolific in churning out tune after tune. The story of Felix Starro juggles two story lines: faith, and undocumented immigration. The principal challenge of telling this story is in how each of those threads is given its due. These stories are even more resonant today, with all that’s happening. In some way, faith and immigration go hand in hand for many of those trying to find a better life in the U.S.
What has the process been like for you bringing these characters to life?
Diane Phelan - A lot of peeling back the onion, layer by layer. Working on a brand new show is exciting and also requires patience because it sometimes takes the length of the process for clues to emerge. Discovering who Charma is and how she functions in the story has taken its time. We really thought she was one thing, and as we started to do runs of the show, our director Ralph Peña started seeing something that needed to deepen with her and so I got new pages after new pages. I loved it.
With the ICE raids happening more and more frequently do you feel this story relates to the current conversations people are having about immigrants? Why or why not?
Ralph B. Peña - This is part of the reason we wanted to tell this story now. I never imagined U.S. policy to be so blatantly anti-immigrant and racist, but here we are, and it's important to reveal human stories behind all the rhetoric. The aspirations of immigrants have always been animated by the United States’ promise of safe harbor. We need to stop criminalizing dreams.
Diane Phelan - Without giving too much away, this story - while taking place in San Francisco of 1985 - is refreshingly current. Every day I watch the story of, among other things, of a boy faced with the impossible choice of leaving behind his identity [to] become one of the many people in this country who choose to come here and become an illegal alien, and it shakes me to my core every time. I think of the real human beings, my neighbors, people I’ve worked with, who live this - people I interact with in my life every single day and in this story get insight into the deep corner of their hearts that you don’t get to see in everyday life. The story is incredibly and viscerally human.
What do you hope your audiences will learn from this show?
Ralph B. Peña - I hope it spurs more conversations about immigration and faith. I also want to look at the hypocrisy of Christians who are rabidly anti-immigrant, and how that comports with the ideals of their religion. I also hope to make clear that stories about communities of color, by artists of color, have a place on the legitimate American stage.
With so much talk about who gets to be “American” what do you think it means to be an American? Or more specifically, Filipino-American? Does this relate to your characters at all?
Diane Phelan - I love this question. As a mixed-race artist, I think all the time about my identity as an American. I am white, and I am Filipino. I am both. And my rich cultural background is precisely part of what makes me American. I think there are a lot of people who are of another culture and come here and really believe in what this country stands for and want to contribute to the conversation, make it better. I think my character Charma can’t wait to be an American. But I feel like she subscribes to that dangerous version of the American Dream because she has no idea what she’s getting into, ha. But, being American means you call this place home, you believe in it, want to make it better for the people around you, no matter what the color of your skin is or where you came from.
On a lighter note, because I believe one thing we (Asians) all have in common is our love of boba tea. For you personally, if you had to pick, what’s your go-to boba order?
Ralph B. Peña - I don’t [drink] boba tea, sadly. I feel like a traitor.
Diane Phelan - I think Charma would love a lavender boba tea with all the bubbles and flan toppings because she’s extra and knows what she wants. It would have to be something flamboyant like that. I love a good taro milk tea with boba and flan and not too sweet.
This Sunday Sept 8th at 2pm I will being seeing this show with CAATA, after which podcast producer Melissa Slaughter and myself will host a talkback with the creatives and cast. For tickets to Sunday’s performance please visit Eventbrite and for other dates Ma-Yi