Out Filipino-American playwright and actor Danny Bernardo is well aware that his world-premiere play, Mahal, is opening at a charged time in the Chicago theater communityparticularly regarding how Asians are depicted onstage.
Before Bailiwick Chicago Theater selected Mahal for its 2012-13 season, the play had one of its developmental readings through Silk Road Rising, a Chicago company led by artistic director Jamil Khoury and famed for its dedication to dealing with Asian and Middle Eastern stories.
Khoury recently was incensed over Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman's dismissive comments regarding Rudyard Kipling's colonial views in a Chicago Magazine article in advance of her adaptation of The Jungle Book at the Goodman Theatre. In an online blog, Khoury accused Zimmerman of building her career on cultural appropriation and "Orientalism." The two artists have since had a lengthy follow-up interview, to try and help clear the air.
But it isn't just in Chicago that the question of Asian authenticity onstage has come up. In 2012, Great Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company came under fire for not hiring a majority of Asian actors for its 2012 adaptation of the famed Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao, as did La Jolla Playhouse in California for a new musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Nightingale staged by out director Moisés Kaufman.
"As a kid, I always dreamed that I'd be able to find a way to marry my cultural experience with my theatrical life," said Bernardo in a telephone interview.
But Bernardo didn't write Mahal solely to redress the lack of Asian-American works or actors on U.S. stages. He wrote the play as a way to personally grieve and with the loss of his father a few years ago.
At that time, Bernardo was assistant directing a 2011 Silk Road Rising production of David Henry Hwang's play Yellow Face, which has its own share of familial and father issues in addition to exploring Chinese-American cultural identity.
"I really took inspiration from how David Henry Hwang dramatized how his father was dying and I put all my feelings about my family, my culture and tried to give my dad this legacy in this play," Bernardo said.
Another major inspiration for Bernardo was being part of the very first About Face Youth Theatre ensemble in the late 1990s. About Face Youth Theatre is famed for developing new works based upon the feelings, experiences and needs of LGBTQ youth.
"The big focus was to take your personal stories and make them into a piece where you still felt connected to it, but also look at it objectively," Bernardo said. "So a lot of the lessons I learned from About Face, gosh almost 15 years ago, really apply."
In Mahal, Bernardo depicts the extended Filipino-American Reyes family as they deal with the loss of the matriarch and a long forgotten secret from their cultural homeland. Issues of assimilation, homophobia and interracial relationships are all brought up in the drama, along with the question of what truly constitutes an American family.
Bernardo is proud of the fact that Mahal marks the first time that Bailiwick Chicago is working under an Equity union contract. That's due to the casting of Jeff Award-winning actor Joseph Anthony Foronda (Miss Saigon, Yellow Face), who portrays the father role of Roberto. Foronda has been involved with Mahal since its early reading stages and he specifically cleared his schedule to ensure that he could follow the show through to its eventual production.
"[Foronda] is one of the best actors I've ever seen. When I was in high school, I saw him as the Engineer in the national tour of Miss Saigon, and then I got to work with him almost 10 years later," Bernardo said. "And now I've worked with him so much in my adult life, I couldn't imagine anyone else in the role."
With the recent issues brought up in regards to Asian heritage casting and cultural authenticity in the theater world, Bernardo is glad that he's contributing to the conversation with Mahal.
"In Chicago at the very end of the season, I've got this play where there are five Filipino-American characters played by Filipino-American actors and that shouldn't be such a novel thingbut it is," Bernardo said. "I feel very strongly about being able to create opportunities for as many diverse actors as possiblenot just for the actors but for the audiences to see themselves reflected in the plays."
Bailiwick Chicago Theater's Mahal plays at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Previews are Wednesday and Thursday, June 26 and 27, with an official press opening at 8 p.m. Friday, June 28. The regular run through Friday, Aug. 2, is 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays with 2 p.m. Sunday matinees.
There are special Monday night industry shows at 7 p.m. July 1 and 7:30 p.m. July 15. There is also an extra Saturday matinee on July 27. Preview tickets are $25. Regular run tickets are $35 ($30 for groups of 10 or more). Call 773-327-5252 or visit Article Link Here .