Imagine you’re a member of America’s second-largest Asian ethnic group, yet you — and your people — are almost invisible.
That’s the plight of pinoys, people whose families have moved from the Philippines to the US in the 100-plus years since the two lands became connected.
Well, East West Players (the nation’s leading Asian-American theatre company) is doing something about that. Criers for Hire, getting its world premiere on their LA stage, is written and directed by Filipinos and and acted by Filipinas (and one guy). It tells the story of a family stretched across the Pacific between Manila and LA.
Baby (Joan Almedilla), leaving her newborn daughter with her mother, has followed low-entry jobs to Japan and then America, earning whatever she can to support her child. Gaya (Nicole Barredo) grows up reading her mother’s loving letters, believing their optimistic exaggerations.
Amid the glamor of Hollywood, Baby earns part of her income as a hired crier, loudly mourning at Chinese-American funerals. The scrappy sisterhood of criers, led by Meding (Giselle “G” Tongi) are her American family.
The play begins as Gaya comes to join Baby and the sisterhood. She barely has time to register her dismay at their subsistence-level existence before she is off to school, where a classmate, Narciso (Rudy Martinez), helps her adapt to the confusing LA teen world. The youngest of the criers, Henny (Samantha Cutaran), also takes Gaya under her wing.
Gaya discovers the grim realities behind the fantasy woven by the letters; and Baby discovers that she has never learned how to be a mother. Nonetheless, this is a comedy — with resilience and a little homespun wisdom from Meding, the mother and daughter reach past their confusions to embrace each other. And a family is born.
Criers for Hire moves briskly, under Jon Lawrence Rivera’s direction, and it’s filled with laughter, even for those who don’t catch every Taglish (Tagalog-English) joke. Playwright Giovanni Ortega faces his hopeful characters squarely with life’s bad news, then lets them find the resources to overcome it.
The actors earn the laughs — and the tears — by creating characters who are alive as individuals. Tongi, an multi-media star in the Philippines, and Martinez, who’s worked all over the Southland, are particularly artful. Almedilla (the closest thing to a pinay star in American theatre), gives Baby many layers and makes us, like her daughter, want to love her; Barredo, an award-winner in LA theatre, nicely displays the emotions of a teen caught in crossing tides. And Cutaran captures an emerging adult who still remembers high school well enough to become a mentor.
With Criers for Hire, East West moves from the Philippines we’ve seen in the news (Imelda, The Musical) to the Filipino- and Filipina-Americans who live among us largely unseen. Let’s hope this untold story circulates widely in American theatre, and is the first of many.
Criers for Hire, by Giovanni Ortega, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by East West Players, in community partnership with the Asia Society and FilAm Arts, at the Performing Arts Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., LA 90012.
Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00, through March 13.
Tickets: <https://eastwestplayers.secure.force.com/ticket> or