Jojo Gonzalez
Jojo Gonzalez
There are so few plays around New York where the majority of the cast is made up of non-Caucasians that I really wanted to like L'il Brown Brothers/Nikimalika, playing at the Grove Street Playhouse. Unfortunately, this meandering cliché of a fable brings almost nothing original to the age-old story of the White Man keeping down the Brown Man and Woman. Although some of the dancing and costumes are nice, they cannot make up for the undeveloped script, tired characters, and confusing plot.

The problems with this play are as numerous as the stars in the sky. This tired celestial metaphor is used by the main character, Balikas (Art Acuna), to explain the cultural difference between his Bontoc tribe and the White Man to white explorer/patron Mr. Edwards (Malachy Cleary). You see, Balikas excitedly announces, the stars are really Gods. No, no, Mr. Edwards patronizingly says, the stars can be used for sea navigation! If a discussion like this sounds original to you, I advise you to see this play.

The story revolves around the Bontoc tribe circa 1904, an indigenous group living a pastoral life burrowed in the lush mountains of the Philippines. They sing and dance, they wear skimpy but colorful clothing, and they communicate with their gods unselfconsciously--you get the picture. The play is presented in a kind of magic realism style using flashbacks, songs, and religious rituals. The reason for the play, ostensibly, is that one of the tribe's members falls ill. To understand this illness, the tribe's elder must search for the sickness' cause in some previous event. Like much in the play, this is confusing.

One day, the tribe's rising star, Balikas, brings home a white man, Mr. Edwards. With gramophone in hand, Mr. Edwards wows the tribe with his technology and explains that he wants to bring them to St. Louis to take part in the 1904 St. Louis World Exposition. Unfortunately for the tribe, they decide: why not! Hey, it's only a well-meaning white man who, in his journal, equates the lush geography of this new land to a lush virgin (though only the audience knows this).

After some nice tribal dancing-one of the strong points of the play-and singing, the Bontoc get on a boat to go to the United States, or Malika--the tribe's word for America. Balikas actually says: "He wants to bring us to the land across the Big Water." Perhaps indigenous tribes around the world uttered these words when faced with the White Man. But, please! At least a script could make it sound more original, just once.

In the program, the show's writer and director, Chris B. Millado, explains that the Bontoc viewed the trip to America as an invitation, while the White Man clearly viewed the tribe's participation as a new form of entertainment for the civilized folks back home. As you can guess, cultural misunderstanding follows.


In St. Louis, the Bontoc are treated as--surprise, surprise--second-class citizens! Mr. Edwards turns out to be, in fact, not a cultural ambassador but a cad. In order to put on a good show for the crowd, he urges Balikas to pretend that his tribe beheads people. Balikas feels strange because in fact the Bontoc are a peaceful tribe. However, the visitors act fierce in front of the cameras.

During this spectacle, two white people taking part in the exhibition observe the tribe: a German fraulein, Sarah Metcalfe (Yvonne Jung), and an Irish fop, J.B. (Paul Buckner). Unfortunately for the audience, the under-written script never clearly explains who J.B. and Sarah are; if not for their stereotypical national accents (Ms. Jung pulls it off, Mr. Buckner struggles mightily), the audience wouldn't be able to place them at all.

Balikas falls for Sarah, ignoring his tribal wife in the process. Around the same time, the tribe members are deciding they have been duped. In the throes of lust, Balikas fails to take notice. At the end of Act One, he and Sarah stroll through the fair and see a couple of Asian dwarfs performing a "cultural number." Balikas throws the Asian couple some coins and they do their number for him--a high-pitched squeal of a song. Then the Asian dwarfs throw coins at Balikas, who delights them by doing his own cultural number. Balikas then throws coins at Sarah, who, being a good sport, does her own cultural dance. This scene is one of the play's only expressions of an original sense of irony. The characters realize the absurdity of their plights--the fact they are all considered freaks to an extent--but still have some fun.

After sicknesses and a death sweep through the World Exposition, the Bontoc pack up and go home. Balikas stays in order to find the man responsible for the death of one of his tribesman. (In Bontoc lore, a tribesman's soul can't go to heaven unless his murder has been avenged.) Balikas finds that Mr. Edwards, the explorer, is responsible and confronts him, avenging his tribesman.

By this time, however, Balikas has fallen far. He is dressed like a Native American and goes by a nom du circus that has nothing to do with his real Filipino identity. He encounters a white woman, Hedjaanta (Yvonne Jung in another role), a showgirl who is supposed to be from the Philippines. There is a sense of cultural irony here--two people from different cultures playing the parts of people from still different cultures. But for some reason, this irony does not hit home. However, in another of the show's (few) highlights, Jung does a dead-on impersonation of parrot--a piece of very strong acting that, perhaps not-coincidentally, doesn't rely on the written script.

In the end, the tribe is reunited back in the Philippines, and lessons are learned. But as the show's epilogue suggests, the world only repeats itself. In a clever scene, the cast is now in the year 2000. The white characters play American tourists in some Asian country snapping pictures of "the locals," and the Asian characters play tribes-people pandering for tourist money. The ignorant White Man and the once-innocent tribesmen are back in their unhappy embrace.

The play is not helped by a very sparse set by Mio Infante. There are dull, white curtains--for everything! Chris Dallos' lighting is also weak, adding little to the already small Grove Street Theater stage. The costume design by Christianne Myers is quite nice. But unfortunately for the Ma-Yi Theater Company, nice costumes cannot cover up a flawed script.