Generational conflict is a common topic of Asian American cultural expression, and a new play by writer Bob Flor, entitled Mabuhay Majesty, explores aspects of this culture that are specific to the local Filipino community.
Mabuhay Majesty focuses on the Seattle Filipino Community Queen Contest in the 1960s, and imagines the journey of two teen-age girls who reject the tradition, despite its focus on fundraising for the community, as humiliating.
Flor’s interest in these competitions of decades past stemmed from personal experience. “I read Pamana, a book about the history of Seattle’s Filipino community,” Flor said. “It contained photos of women who had run in the contests over the years. I knew a few and had even dated one or two when I was younger.”
All this contest information piqued Flor’s curiosity. “I didn’t understand their function, purpose or how they were operated,” he said. “It took a bit of research.”
He then refined his understanding by writing a play originally entitled The Princessa Contest in 2015. “The title changed when I was showing the photos to my wife, and explaining the play,” he said. “A photo of one of the Queens, seated with a banner on her chair, read ‘Mabuhay Majesty.’ Catalina said, ‘That’s a better title.’”
At its heart, Flor shares how Mabuhay Majesty is a collaborative work with the local community. “I interviewed a few women who had run in the contests when they were teens including Dorothy Cordova, Jeanette Tiffany, and Linda Divina,” he said. “They provided several stories I used to develop the characters of Reina and Marietta, the girls.”
The male characters also reflect local Filipino role models. “Valeriano, the father, was based on Pinoy men who arrived in Seattle post-World War II,” Flor said. “They’d served with the American military fighting in the Philippines.”
He even sees a bit of himself in the play. “Rickie, the teen boy, was like many of the guys I grew up with in the Central District and Rainier Valley,” he said. “I probably was mentally revisiting my teen years.”
After the initial writing was complete, Flor began workshopping the play and soliciting the feedback of other theatre artists. “Readings were particularly helpful,” he said. “At one, [local director] David Hsieh suggested the character of Marietta needed additional development. This led me to expand her actions in the Jefferson scene to show her vulnerability and reliance on Reina.”
Most recently, the current cast and director of the show have helped develop the work. “Eloisa Cardona, Roger Rigor, Manny Golez and Laurie Rocello-Torres rounded out the ‘Filipinoness’ of the play,” Flor said. “I revised the original ending to better reflect the cultural norms of Filipinos after a discussion with Eloisa Cardona, the director.”
Although Cardona has primarily worked as an actor and is fairly new to directing, she’s enthusiastic about the opportunity. “I’ve found myself walking out of plays and discussing them with my husband, daughter, whoever had been my theater date for that evening, about what I saw and what I thought would have worked better in the directing or storytelling,” she said. “A friend of mine kept encouraging me to ‘take the plunge.’”
Directing Mabuhay Majesty seems a natural next step for Cardona. “Since I’d directed a staged reading of one of Flor’s plays for ACT Theatre’s ActLab series,” she said, “and a one-act for Eclectic Theater’s one-act play festival, Flor just said, in effect, ‘you’re it.’”
Cardona describes the rehearsal process as a team endeavor. “Our process is very much a collaborative effort,” she said. “The director and the actors can have input, we discuss, then we either rewrite a line or a word on the spot, or Bob goes away and thinks about it, and comes back with a rewrite. After I’ve finished working on a scene with the actors, I usually ask for Bob’s input, or he offers a suggestion or observation.”
Flor explains why he is so receptive to this feedback. “Since I’m America-born, I don’t have the same cultural instincts as someone born in the Philippines,” he said. “In rehearsals, Laurie would add colloquial phrases to lines. I’d done some of that, drawing on translations, but couldn’t to the extent that provided the timing and contextual use that a native speaker would. They added the touch of realism to the characters.”
Cardona concurs. “I’m blessed with a wonderfully talented group of Filipino American actors,” she said. “We all understand and ‘get’ the nuances of our culture, and, most importantly, the humor!”
The actors chime in on this sentiment. “I’ve worked with Uncle Bob on a couple of his projects and wanted to be apart of this specific project because it puts a light on a story that is rarely, if ever told, about the 1960s experience of Filipinos in the Seattle area,” said Matt Dela Cruz, who plays Mr. Cajumco, the Union Leader. “I rarely get to play a character of Filipino heritage, so to be able to get to channel that onstage has been something I’ve been looking forward to for quite sometime. I can’t wait to bring this character to life!”
Actor Manny Golez echoes Cruz’s opinion. “I find it exciting and rewarding to tell our story, most especially the story about our pioneers who have shaped the Filipino community into what it is now,” said Golez, who plays the role of Valeriano Buyco, father of Reina, one of the pageant candidates for the box dance. “Valeriano is a man full of hopes and dreams, not just for his daughter, but also for the Filipinos in our community. He yearns for a time when Filipinos can stand toe to toe with the Americans and be considered as their equal.”
Despite all of the enthusiasm and generosity from the community, Flor reports that serving as his own producer has not been without its challenges. “It’s difficult when you’re not a theater where you might have access to stage managers, set and lighting designers, costumers, and other technicians,” Flor said.
Yet Flor says that his long list of acknowledgments for others’ contributions demonstrates that there is a cultural hunger for such work. “I learned there’s a strong theater and community in Seattle who are interested in supporting projects that tell their stories,” he said. “They are willing to step forward to help give these projects life.”
‘Mabuhay Majesty’ will be presented on September 29 and 30 at Rainier Arts Center, 3515 S. Alaska Street, Seattle. For more information, visit www.rainierartscenter.org/event/mabuhay-majesty.