Sometimes when I sit down to write a review, I feel stuck, at a loss for words. Other times, when a piece is full of life, clarity and honesty, the words flow like river that even surprises me. “Crisis Mode: Living Pilipino in America” at The Strand Theater Company is the latter of these. Creator, writer, and performer Cory Dioquino’s vision of the knife’s edge experience of an immigrant in the land of opportunity is a searing critique of colonialism, American white knight syndrome, and the joy and passion of Filipino culture. Well supported by a talented cohort of directors and designers, this play is a must see for anyone who is lucky enough to know or love an immigrant (hint: all of us!).
…a searing critique of colonialism, American white knight syndrome, and the joy and passion of Filipino culture…intimate, striking, brutally honest, and genuinely kind.
In a delightful use of Tagalog and English, Dioquino, whose stage name takes inspiration from the Philippines first woman president, Cori Aquino, presents the audience with a multidisciplinary view of the three identities crisis that she has experienced since emigrating to the United States at the age of four. Through traditional Filipino dance, college style lectures (with candy!), surrealist narrative, and well-timed humor, one human’s story is indisputably interwoven with the rich and brutal history of her home country. Dioquino made effective comparisons to engage with the audience, simultaneously subverting common narrative. While speaking in Tagalog, English subtitles appeared on screen. Her favorite children’s show, “Batibot,” was likened to the American “Sesame Street.” She touched on everything, from the effects of colonialism, indigenous culture, gender politics, the American immigration industry, language, family, and the dreary event of swearing citizenship.
Imagine being the product of a strategically forgotten culture. How could you begin to reckon with the core of your identity? There is a painful duality to assimilation. This is what the audience is tasked with—to transport ourselves into the experience of a struggle to break free from a pan-Asian monolith; seek acceptance in both a foreign home and home country that has become foreign; and find that, somehow, you are neither American or Asian “enough.”
The trauma of Dioquino’s experience is tenderly displayed with absolutely devastating effects. At one point, she recounts the emergency preparedness plan that her mother—shoutout to Marela Kay Minosa, who voices Dioquino’s mother in a recording—implored her to memorize at the age of six, a list of numbers to call in case she were to find herself alone. “I am all alone in America, I have no one else but mama” echoed through an utterly overcome room.
Not only was the nights performance a tour de force from a creative standpoint, I also learned much about Filipino history. I’ll name a few, in the interest of mystique and brevity. In a replayed zoom interview with Lolo Dario, Dioquino’s grandfather, atrocities of the Pacific theatre during World War II came to light in gruesome and honest detail. Reminiscing about the first time the Philippines was discussed in school, Dioquino suddenly transformed into the fearsome warrior, Lapu Lapu, who murdered Spanish conquistador Magellan. The Philippines still holds Magellan’s body to this day, but Dioquino’s American history books conveniently glossed over the reason behind Magellan’s visit or his deserved end. Also glossed over in the history books, but analyzed in depth during the performance, was the American pogrom of “benevolent assimilation”—a misnomer of the highest degree, as the pacification of the Philippines came at high cost to its citizens through torture, scorched earth policies, and genocide. Filipino’s fought hard against American imposition, so much so that American military was forced to adapt quickly, leading to the invention of the Colt-45 pistol so that American soldiers would be less likely to be decapitated.
The joy and beauty of Filipino culture was just a present during the performance, particularly through the employment of several traditional dances. Choreographer Catrece Ann Tipon developed movement for four unique styles of dance. First was the Katsudoratan, a Maranao dance that shows the royal manner of walking. The dance is performed by ladies of the court before special events. With flowing red handkerchiefs, Dioquino strutted across the stage to open the evenings revels, with sensually timed flourishes of cloth. Whilst embodying Lapu Lapu, Dioquino was engaged in the the Idaw, a warrior dance. She was so terrifyingly powerful it even caused her staff to shatter into a spear. This may not have been Tipon’s initial plan as props designer, but it was one of those moments that makes live performance so special. Acknowledging the Spanish influence on Filipino culture was the Pandanggo Sa Ilaw, which was performed in candlelight, in a nod to the meaning of Ilaw which is light. The finale dance was the Tinikling which has several origin stories. Some say it is an indigenous dance inspired by the Tikling birds who would escape the bamboo traps set by rice farmers on the Visayan Islands. Others claim a darker past, from the Spanish plantations. Two bamboo rods were used against workers as punishment, clapping against and breaking their ankles. The only way to avoid pain was to jump quickly out of the way. The dance has transformed from a challenge to an artistic dance in congruity with Filipino perseverance and strength.
Developed in collaboration with director Tara Cariaso, the many characters of the evening were strikingly clear. The story was heartfelt and paced well. A one-actor show presents unique challenges, but never lacked for detail or focus. The set, also designed by Cariaso, utilized the full space efficiently, giving it warmth and cozy vibes. Open and light, it imitated a home, with mantles displaying books on Filipino history, photographs of loved ones and idols, props hung from the walls, indigenous weaponry, garments, and the Filipino flag. The sun icon from the flag centered the space and the eye was drawn to it through chevron patterning on the floor. Dioquino was costumed by Tipon, dressed in warm ochre as a base that was layered and unlayered with an assortment of Filipino dresses, shirts, and pants throughout the evening.
Lighting and projection design by Amy Rhodes incorporated both naturalistic elements and surrealist colors which effectively moved the story through its different disciplines, for instance, lecture style “did you know” informercials. Justin Sabe’s sound design concretely grounded sense of place, transporting the audience to the busy streets of Manila and all the way to the darkest recesses of a traumatized child’s brain.
“Crisis Mode: Living Pilipino in America” is intimate, striking, brutally honest, and genuinely kind. I was grateful to share in Dioquino’s vulnerability and the pure love that she has for her culture and family. This is one of those stories that I will hold closely in my heart for a long time yet, and hope that many others will bear witness, learn, and gain perspective of the Pilipino experience.
Running time: Approximately 80 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Not recommended for those under the age of 13. Contains discussions of mental illness, childhood trauma, experiences of immigration and family separation. Content warnings also for graphic descriptions and brief displays of war, torture, and death.
“Crisis Mode: Living Pilipino in America“ runs in person through April 2, 2023 at Strand Theatre Co., 5426 Harford Rd., Baltimore MD 21214 and online March 30-April 16, 2023. Click here for online tickets. For more information and tickets, go online. Masks are required unless actively eating or drinking.