Vancouver, BC. — Using texts from the poems, letters and the memoir of Carlos Bulosan, director Dennis Gupa revealed the depth of Bulosan’s pain, longing, and struggle as a migrant in America. The performance entitled I am not a laughing man could not have been well timed. The migrant workers issue had just become a hot topic in British Columbia and there was a lot of Filipino bashing, as Filipino migrant workers were seen as taking jobs away from Canadians. Seated in the dark, I thought that if Bulosan was alive, he would most likely be a temporary foreign worker in Canada in the low- skilled category!
The play began and it hit me. I cringed and my chest began to tighten when the wooden panel with the words “Filipinos and Dogs Not Allowed”, a not uncommon sign in America in the 1930s and 40s, is displayed alongside the panel with the words Huelga, Welga and Strike. Carlos Bulosan’s America was cruel, anti-Filipino, anti-union, and anti-migrant. In America, Filipinos were savages on the same level as dogs.
Bulosan came from a peasant family in Pangasinan and he had no formal education. At 17, he left his village and came to Seattle, Washington. From his archives which are kept in the University of Washington, we know that within two days of his arrival, he was “shanghaied by a local hotel proprietor and sold to an Alaskan fish cannery.” He later went back to Washington and became a migrant farm worker, a trade unionist and labour organizer. He was self-educated and used his two year stay in the hospital recovering from tuberculosis to read and write his poetry and short stories. He was a socialist and a social commentator of his times. In the 1950s, he was among those who were blacklisted by McCarthy and the Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1956, Bulosan died in Seattle, a poor man and would have been forgotten forever if his mostly unpublished writings and letters were not “discovered” in the 1970s in the library in the University of Washington.
In the play, the words of Bulosan change narrators as the different members of the ensemble become Bulosan with the deft change of suit or hat. The “assemblage of text” was superbly delivered amidst the dance of the risers that opened and shut like treasure boxes—how else to show the personification of America, the ugly face of racism, the terrible death of the carabao, or the deep sorrow of Bulosan? I was very impressed to hear and watch the cast sing Dahil sa Iyo, the popular 1930s song by Mike Velarde Jr and Tom Spinosa, in the style of the decade and the haunting song of Infinite Love Walang Hanggang Paalam by Joey Ayala at the finale – I could not help but sing along because it was beautifully sung and there was no discordant note or word from the ensemble.
I am not a laughing man is not only the story of Bulosan and his struggle in America, but it is also the story of millions of uprooted Filipino migrant workers inside America and elsewhere. Indeed, his migrant experience was not only the raw material for his writings; it was what made him a poet, a commentator, a writer and a novelist.
I am not a laughing man is a truly collaborative effort in the hands of director Dennis Gupa and the BFA Acting students who performed: Jonathan Bell, Nathan Cottell, Thomas Elms, Matt Kennedy, and Demi Pedersen. The creative team included BFA Design & Production students Becky Fitzpatrick (Stage Manager), Chanel McCartney (Costume Design), Nick Preston (Music Director), Patrick Fouchard (Sound Design), and Shelby Page (Makeup Design).
Dennis Gupa is one of the talented first year Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Directing students in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia. I am not a laughing man was staged from April 15-17 and is the second student play under Gupa’s direction at the Dorothy Somerset Studio Theatre at the UBC. Gupa is from the Dept. of
Humanities of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of the Philippines, Los Banos.
In the end, I believe that the success of a play is what it leaves you with. “Sumakit ang aking dibdib. Napaiyak ako. Nagalit ako.” (It was painful. I cried. I got angry.) It leaves me with the hunger to read more of Bulosan’s writings. It leaves me wishing that more people, Filipinos and non-Filipinos, get to know Bulosan. And there is no better way to introduce Carlos Bulosan than to introduce him as “I am not a laughing man” to everyone, especially to Filipinos in Canada. Thank you, Dennis Gupa. ( Photo credits Javier Sotres Pores)