Here, Lies: A statement about, not a review of, the Broadway musical Here Lies Love by Caro Mangosing
I have talked about my distaste about this show having another mounting (posted in stories a little while ago). I want to reiterate, I am not trying to make enemies or draw lines between the people who are riding for this show, the Filipinos IN this show, the Filipino producers of this show — I am merely making a case for why this show should NOT have been remounted, and why this show is so damn problematic. OK?
YES, it’s truly gratifying to have Filipinos on Broadway who are playing Filipinos. Filipinos aren’t playing Vietnamese communists, or Japanese tourists, or playing the royal court in Siam. We are past playing for Rogers and Hammerstein, Schonberg and Boublil, and the great Stephen Sondheim. We are past playing all kinds of other Asians in stories written by white people… but hear me out — now we are playing Filipinos (cool) — STILL written by white people.
Regardless of my issue, I still want to shout out our community of incredibly talented Filipino-American artists. The fact that all these years Filipinos have had to play all other Asians on stage is a testament to their undeniable excellence and talent. And musical theatres during the pandemic became an endangered art form. And our community of talent were out of work for a long time. So the fact that they have a new opportunity to share their gifts at the most esteemed stages is something that we ultimately have to champion.
But, I’ve had friends in the industry DM me about how they agree with my distaste of this show, the timing, etc., but are afraid of saying it publicly lest they come off divisive, unsupportive, or worse, get blacklisted. But DECOLONIZING is uncomfortable and difficult. I am staying true to my rebel Filipiniana handle by putting this out there: we need to stop being passive as a community. My intention in writing this is to create some healthy discourse and dialogue without cancelling, without divisive pettiness. I mean, I was on the sidewalk protesting 30 years ago against Miss Saigon’s racist portrayals of Asians, and I eventually married one of the performers. As one of the Black community’s luminary feminist writers and activists, Audre Lorde, said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” (1979)
Ultimately, for me, this is about how dangerous this show is for our already amnesiatic community.
First off, let us not forget that HLL is written by a white man who wanted to make his own Evita, but with Imelda. There’s all this news out about how he did his research, went to the Philippines, uses real quotes from Filipinos, but at the end of the day, he’s fetishizing. He doesn’t cite his sources. With content this deep and with Imelda still alive and her son now the president of the Philippines, it’s irresponsible and unethical. And he gets a pass because he’s a white man? The four above-the-line creatives on this show are also not Filipino — the Filipinos here are the performers, and so to whom does the profit on this project go? Take a guess.
And let’s talk about the Filipino producing investors on this show. Listen, I get the idea of wanting to invest for optics, PR, etc., because I’ve heard from more than one insider that investors won’t be making much ROI on this. So I want our community of moneyed Filipinos to think critically about where they are putting their money. Beyoncé be shouting out Telfar in her songs, and she and her manz putting their money behind so many other black owned and led businesses and endeavours — when is our community of stars going to amplify our own for real? There’s at least 4 or 5 Filipino-written musicals that were mounted in smaller theatres across North America this year alone…
Perhaps more can be ruminated on other problematic points. I spoke with a few friends who have seen the show and they came away assuming it was all facts. Like the fact that Ninoy and Imelda dated. I am not surprised by this take. It’s not actually facts, I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, friends. They were in fact, distant relatives.* Ninoy escorted Imelda to dances. Ferdinand married Imelda not out of some starstruck romantic moment, but to gain political power in uniting Luzon and the Visayas. Saying that Ninoy and Imelda dated in the context of the show, okay, call it creative license, but letting audiences believe they dated and that it’s a fact — that is a lie. That is historical revision to sanitize the name of a corrupt family. It actually feels like Marcos propaganda. I mean Imelda has been quoted to say she was “flattered” by this project — that says a lot.
We had a community member in a meeting who questioned the historical distortion in this piece, and one of the Filipino producers for the musical told them, “It’s just art, it’s not a documentary.”
But then when it comes to breaking union contracts and throwing musicians under the bus, all of a sudden, we’re true to KARAOKE? The producers are out here saying karaoke is “essential in Filipino spirit and how we are as people” — and telling us that karaoke is life or death — but the storyline can’t reveal the life and death situations under the Marcoses? When it comes to not fulfilling your union contract, all of a sudden you have to be true to karaoke, but not history? That’s weird, and kinda telling. And problematic. I am sorry, but I am a Filipino immigrant and I don’t live and die on the hill of karaoke. I would never defend karaoke over the truth of our history, but maybe that’s just me. This is not about “exclusion” or “marginalization” when the project is created by a white man. Let’s be real, this tactic uses Filipino “culture” and its Filipino producers as a shield against poor business decisions at the expense of workers and unions. I get that the Filipino producers also have their own agenda, but at what cost?
Ok let’s have a little historical kwentuhan. Have you all heard of Carlos Celdran? He was a brilliant Filipino multi-disciplinary artist and history buff who changed my life. To make a longer story short, his work inspired me to start the Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts & Culture in Toronto, and I eventually brought him to Toronto to perform and collaborate with Filipinx artists here — more than once, with Canadian arts funding. That’s how incredible he was.
Along with his walking tour of Intramuros, he also used to do a walking tour of the CCP (Cultural Centre of the Philippines) Complex in Manila called Living La Vida Imelda. He’d have a little tape player, he’d play Filipino disco, he’d dress in a 1970s barong and give a tour of the CCP and build a story for you, and it’d be this amazing metaphor for the rise and fall of the Marcos regime. It was brilliant and informative and educational, and he’d sprinkle in a little bit of tsismis. He’d say things like, “Rumours are…” and give you the rumours, and say, “Take this with a grain of salt…” and then also present the facts.
Although there were critics who labeled Carlos as an Imelda apologist, I am here to tell you, as someone who worked closely with him, he was not. He addressed the differences between tsismis, ambiguity, and facts instead of making it a fairy tale. Sure he was more irreverent than some may have wanted, but he wanted people to know the truth between the rumours so that they can make up their own mind.
Carlos’ Living La Vida Imelda tour and performance stayed with me for a long time. It gave me history in such a digestible way. It gave me the political backstory of why my family moved to the States one year after Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, before the People Power Revolution. It inspired me to get funding from different Canadian provincial and municipal art grants to workshop the tour as a play presented by Kapisanan in collaboration with locally based Filipinx artists, here in Toronto, creating space for homeland and diaspora Filipino artists and community to learn from each other. Carlos eventually took the play to Ma-Yi Theater Off-Broadway in NYC. And you know what?
David Byrne met with Carlos in Manila. Carlos could be called the expert on Imelda at the time because he was doing all these tours — that he had already spent years researching. Carlos had a critical eye. Carlos invited Byrne to his show, but he never came. This would have been a wholly different project if David Byrne collaborated with a Filipino creative like Celdran and amplified his work, right?
Maybe y’all are wondering what this has to do with ternos and fashion. First off, my MO from the beginning has been to take the terno away from Imelda. You look into the history of the terno, and you’ll see that in the 1970s, the terno became synonymous with Imelda Marcos instead of symbolic of the Philippines, with people even calling the butterfly sleeves “Imelda sleeves.” The reason she got all her international “butterfly” nicknames and reputation is exactly because of the terno. She used our fashion to make herself the “bearer of tradition” and legitimize herself and Marcos authoritarianism. Not gonna lie, she really did look like a (beauty) queen when she wore a terno. I mean, that’s what she wanted to be, the Queen of the Philippines. With Filipino people’s culturally Catholic penchant for idol worship, she essentially was that for many. If I can help it, I will single handedly not let that happen again. With Imelda, her kin, or anyone else for that matter.
I won’t have our culture selfishly taken over by corruption and power-hungry megalomaniac politicians who were backed by our American colonizers (until it wasn’t cute to do so anymore).
Tell me, kapwa, why do we have people buying ternos that are proudly called “rebel Filipiniana,” and then wearing them to celebrate an Asian-fetishizing fantasy about a murderous, embezzling dictator in an apolitical show that tried to screw over unions and other artists written by a white man? Because maybe we just don’t know ourselves enough?
I mean, let’s be real, the North American diaspora has little to no access to our history and the political events that have pushed us out of our homeland. Very often our “Filipino Pride” comes in packages of Philippine flags, celebrity bigoted champion boxer, celebrated mainstream comedian, multiple-Grammy winning performers and songwriters, and fast food chains whose workers are fighting for fair wages. Cultural “representation” wrapped in Tinsel (a.k.a. money + fame), with no historical context — we are just Filipino “fans”** (listen, I am a fan too but), it’s not an expression of our culture that’s representing us in a real way, it’s fandom. Fandom should not replace knowledge of self.
As Philippine-based collective, @dating_pilipinas2 on IG so very bluntly put it, “Western Filipinos should be ashamed that representation is more important than honesty about what Imelda is and what she and her family did to us”
The cognitive dissonance and amnesia is real. It’s hard for a new generation to understand martial law because it has already been glossed over in Philippine school history books, what more for us in the diaspora? I’m just going to say it again, Here Lies Love is not the way to do it. I really believe it’s the wrong way to do it. And to have all these celebrities and famous Filipino Americans supporting the show sends a confusing message that supports revisionist history, ultimately obscuring our truth. Allowing white people to take artistic liberties with our story for commerce is very much Big Colonizer Energy and YES, cultural appropriation. Yet, here’s our kapwa applauding like the happy “little brown brothers”*** that the American Imperialist agenda had always said we are. The model minority trope is us being bamboozled in our own way, and that is real. That’s fucking uncomfortable to own isn’t it? More than anything, it makes me sad. I am not even mad at this, I am sad.
We need everyone to be more vocal about the ethics around the creation of this piece, it can’t just be me, y’all. Especially right now, when Marcos Jr. is president and it’s so convenient that the family’s ill-gotten wealth cases have unsurprisingly been junked on suspicious terms, just a month ago. A month ago, y’all! I have heard rumours from a few people that there was funding for this production coming from the Philippines. Ahem. That’s the tsismis lang, ok. But it is fact that I worked with elders who were part of the Coalition Against The Marcos Dictatorship in Vancouver and in Toronto in my 20s and 30s. They told me stories of fleeing the Philippines with babies in their arms, leaving behind disappeared husbands, raped and tortured comrades. These things happened when I was a child, not even 40 years ago. I have a child now, and to imagine having to do that, fucking chokes me up every time I think about it. The story has to be fucking understood and told by us. It’s not enough that we got to escape to our colonizer’s stolen land. Period.
Realistically, actual conversations and public acknowledgement of the crimes of the Marcoses are not going to take place. I mean, the real history has already been scrubbed from school history books in the Philippines, so we certainly can’t rely on the musical written by a white American man to do it. To be very real and honest with all of you, as a company that also has operations in the homeland, I really feel the threat of political/personal repercussions for me and my employees speaking about this — the Philippine government does still “red tag” dissenting organizations — that is fucking real. Democracy in the Philippines is a façade. This rebel energy has real risks. I wonder if everyone with stars in their eyes watching the interactive spectacle that is Here Lies Love, really understands, knows, or remembers what that threat feels like.
Stay vigilant, kapwa. Know yourself. Let’s keep doing the work,
*Impossible Dream: The Marcoses, The Aquinos, and The Unfinished Revolution by Sandra Burton (1989). New York, NY: Warner Books. p47
**Filipino fans as discussed in a conversation with Krystle Tugadi and Dustin Domingo of MeSearch Podcast: Can I be Radical And Fashionable (ft. Caroline Mangosing and Sydney Cohen of VINTA Gallery) - June 26, 2023
***"Little Brown Brother" was a term used by Americans to refer to Filipinos. The term was coined by William Howard Taft, the first American Governor-General of the Philippines (1901-1904) and later the 27th President of the United States.
Please click on all the links in this piece and read them, below are some of them again, and more.
25 years ago, Miss Saigon gave me my big break; 25 years later, would I be protesting it?
Millenials Meet Martial Law Victims
In this 2016 video, young Filipinos, who are first time voters during that time, were shocked and in tears when they unexpectedly meet and hear the stories of victims of the Martial Law.
Filipino survivors of martial law still haunted by abuses 50 years after declaration https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/survivors-martial-law-philippines-abuses-50-years-later-1.6592042
‘Here Lies Love’ Pairs Disco With a Dictator. It’s a Controversial Choice.
“To be blunt – Western Filipinos should be ashamed that representation is more important than honesty about what Imelda is and what she and her family did to us” – @dating_pilipinas2 (on IG)
After you’ve looked at all of the above links, try and sit through David Byrne talking about his reasons why he did this project with another white man, Conan O’Brien.