An Authentic Telling

As Twee quips in House Rules, which ran March 25-April 16 at HERE, “When white people say authentic they mean two steps better than fusion, two steps worse than real.” In this play, A. Rey Pamatmat’s writing manages to embody all three, as an authentic telling of a real (as in plausible) intergenerational negotiation of the fusion of American and Filipino identities. This play was much more realistic and linear than previous works I have seen by Pamatmat, while still maintaining his funny, fast-paced humor paired with insightful, emotional truth.

Pamatmat’s text was greatly complimented by Reid Thompson’s set design and Oliver Wason’s sound design, seamlessly drawing the audience’s attention from one scene to the next without having to haul any furniture as we moved from space to space. Fabian Obispo’s choice of scene transition jazz was very Birdman, and portrayed the same frenetic energy.

The play focuses on family relationships between siblings and parents, in a Brady Bunch-esque set up of one father with two sons alongside one mother and her two daughters. Each pair of siblings contains one artist and one doctor, and each relationship is fraught with rivalries and judgments. Eventually, parental mortality strikes fear into the hearts of all the children, and they evolve into stronger versions of themselves.

The question of filial responsibility was ever-present in this story, most distinctly referenced in the admonishment, “You don’t have to like him, but you do have to be grateful.” As the children sorted through their identity crises, trying to find a balance of cultural preservation and personal, assimilated identity, the parents evaluated the worth of their sacrifices for the sake of their families.

In many ways, it was a universal American immigrant story, but the Filipino specificities rung out, with references to Filipino mah-jong, traditional cuisine, and learning Tagalog. I sensed a parallel to Pamatmat’s own experience in the examination of what it means to be an artist born to immigrant parents, as the inner conflict expressed by those characters was particularly poignant. How do you possibly live up to your parents’ sacrificing everything for you before you were born? Is it monetary success or artistic success or somewhere in between?

Pamatmat said in an interview with Samuel D. Hunter in June 2015, “Typically in my plays (even when the characters’ ethnicities are essential elements) I write about ethnicity by rebelling against writing about ethnicity — mostly because the American theatre tends to fetishize race and ethnicity rather than actually discuss related issues from an insider’s point of view.” Conversely, in this piece, Pamatmat tackles ethnicity head-on, and represents the complicated emotions of characters trapped in an impossible identity crisis.

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