Theater News

Filipino Politics at the Public

Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, all about political corruption and assassination in the Philippines, comes to the Public Theater.

Arthur Acuna and Rona Figueroain Dogeaters(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Arthur Acuna and Rona Figueroa
in Dogeaters
(Photo: Michal Daniel)

The president of the Philippines, Joseph Estrada, was recently deposed following charges of political corruption. This upheaval was largely ignored in the U.S., thanks to our own election drama; the Philippines’ new president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was sworn in the same day as George W. Bush. But the situation was watched closely by many Filipino-Americans, including novelist/playwright Jessica Hagedorn, who explains: “I still have family there. People send me all the updates as to what’s going on.”

The news comes at an interesting time for Hagedorn, who is preparing for the New York premiere of Dogeaters, her own adaptation of her 1990 novel of the same name. “It’s been a really incredible story to follow while I’ve been re-writing,” says the author. “The irony is so amazing.”

Both play and novel are set against the backdrop of the Marcos regime, infamous for its political corruption. However, Hagedorn is more concerned with the atmosphere of the time than with providing a chronology of actual events. “This is not History 101,” she avers. “I cannot give the audience all that information. But, hopefully, people who come will get a sense of it.” The story centers on the way the assassination of a senator affects the lives of everyone from politicians to hustlers, beauty queens to political radicals. Of course, there are parallels to the 1983 assassination of former senator Benigno Aquino, gunned down at an airport by Marcos supporters. Yet Hagedorn tells her own story, mixing fact and fiction, real life characters with her own inventions.

Jessica Hagedorn
Jessica Hagedorn

The production–currently in previews, and opening at the Public Theater on March 4–is directed by Michael Greif. Best known as the director of the Tony Award-winning musical Rent, Greif is also a former artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California, where Dogeaters had its world premiere in 1998. He and Hagedorn first met in the early 1990s, when both were artistic associates at The Public. “Joanne Akalaitis was running the place,” Hagedorn recalls. “She had this great idea of having artistic associates from different genres–directors, writers, designers. We’d meet, talk, and exchange ideas. Michael mentioned to me that he’d read my book and really loved it. When he went to La Jolla a couple years later, he called me and said, ‘Would you be interested in adapting it?’ I was very surprised. I thought it would be too difficult.”

The novel has an epic scope; it is populated by numerous supporting characters and was written with an amazing attention to detail. “I began thinking about whose stories I wanted to tell and who had to be sacrificed,” says the author about her process of adapting her work for the stage. “I re-read the book and had to make really, really hard decisions. I could allude to the epic quality of the novel by combining some of the characters; it was interesting what we actually managed to keep.” In addition, Hagedorn was able to add things to the play that were not in the novel. “The fun thing for me as a writer is to be able to go back to that landscape and expand on it,” she says. “Some of the characters who were in the background could have fuller lives. I had an opportunity to re-invent it all over again.”

Rona Figueroa in Dogeaters(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Rona Figueroa in Dogeaters
(Photo: Michal Daniel)

When the book was first released, its title stirred quite a bit of controversy in the Asian-American community, as it is an ethnic slur against Filipinos. “I knew I was opening a can of worms,” says Hagedorn. “I could have picked a safer and more poetic title, but I also had to ask myself why I would be afraid to take that risk. Perhaps it was time to confront those feelings and lay myself open to that kind of critique–that the title said something about us on some level.”

Although she’s achieved more fame as a novelist, Hagedorn is no stranger to the world of theater: She was one of the original cast members of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. She has also created such multimedia theater pieces as Teenytown (in collaboration with Laurie Carlos and Robbie McCauley) and Airport Music (with Han Ong). She even studied at A.C.T. in San Francisco and flirted with the idea of becoming an actor.

“I realized soon enough what was waiting out there for me, which was not much,” says Hagedorn, alluding to the dearth of good roles for people of color in the theater. “So I decided to focus on the writing. In that way, I could help change the landscape.”

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