San Francisco’s Bindlestiff Studio lays claim to being the first Filipino-American theater in the nation. But The Guerrillas of Powell Street is a unique project even for Bindlestiff. It’s both the American premiere and the English-language premiere of a play that was first performed in Manila in 2008. But while it may be an import, it’s really a local story.
Rody Vera’s play is based on the book Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street by Benjamin Pimentel, a Bay Area journalist whose novel is inspired by a series of articles he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about a group of Filipino World War II veterans who hung around the cable car turnaround on Powell Street in the early 1990s.
Fighting against the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, an American colony at the time, these soldiers were promised U.S. citizenship and military benefits after the war. Fifty years later, they’re still waiting for the veterans’ benefits that the U.S. government promised them and still hasn’t delivered. Now facing death, they hope to be able to have their bodies shipped home intact for a proper burial in their native soil, instead of the far more affordable option of cremation, which is contrary to their traditions.
In minimal staging by director Pablo Tapay Bautista, the pace of the play is pretty lackadaisical. Because it’s about a bunch of guys hanging out on the street, there are a lot of scenes of the same five veterans just killing time, teasing each other, joking around, sometimes singing, and helping each other out en masse when necessary. Occasionally they meet with a lawyer whom they just call “Attorney” (Rhoda Gravador), who briefs them on the progress of legislation to secure the promised benefits.
Along the way, some of the men reenact sad stories from their past. Ruben (Allan S. Manalo), who now spends all his money on a prostitute (a cartoonishly swaggering Gravador), found his brother’s dead body on the battlefield. Tex, the guy in the outlandish cowboy gear (Apollo Madayag, outfitted by Joyce Juan Manalo), is being woefully mistreated by his green-card wife (Gravador again), but figures he’s paying a karmic debt because of something terrible that happened during the war. Fidel, a likeable but low-key guy whose arms almost always hang limply at his sides (Augusto Gonzales), also has a tragic back story that has nothing to do with his military service.
In fact, we hear very little about what actually happened during the war; it’s mostly bits and pieces about what happened afterward. For instance, the Major (Joji Isla), a distinguished and reserved man who becomes the public face of the group's fight for their rights, is otherwise mostly characterized by having been taken advantage of by stingy cousins in Daly City (Michael Dorado and Rose Almario). Curiously enough, one of the primary examples of their extreme penny-pinching -- using a bucket of recycled washing water to flush the toilet -- is really something that more Californians should be doing as a conservation measure during the current drought.
Joshua Icban sticks to the sidelines as a somber young man with a guitar, accompanying the others when they sing and generally providing background music. But there’s a good reason for him to be there that’s revealed midway through the play and changes our whole understanding of what’s going on (though we may have had suspicions from the beginning).
There are several characters whose purpose is unclear, people who drift in and out seemingly at random, such as a gravelly voiced, younger African-American guy (Paul Anthony James) who wanders in to joke around with the veterans in one scene and is never seen again. Patrick Silvestre is awkwardly incorporated into the story as the third wheel of a revolutionary couple, and I still have no idea who one of the women played by Almario is supposed to be. There’s a sixth old guy, Leo (Dorado), who’s ostensibly part of the group -- they’re all waiting for him at the beginning of the play -- but he’s hardly ever seen hanging out with them, even in flashback. Badong (Oscar Peñaranda), one of the core group of veterans, is a genial cipher who’s always around, but we never learn anything about him. All we know is that he’s an old acquaintance of another character from the old country and they randomly met again on Powell Street.
Although the dialogue is in English, there are a lot of jokes that are only funny if you know Tagalog, and others are just inaudible. Bindlestiff’s production is hampered by slack pacing and uneven acting. But the point of The Guerrillas of Powell Street is that these forgotten veterans have largely been ignored in American history, and too many of us have never even heard about them or their continuing plight. What little this play reveals about the things they lived through, and how little they have to show for it, demands attention, even if the show itself may make that attention wander.
The Guerrillas of Powell Street runs through August 2, 2014 at Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit bindlestiffstudio.org.
All photos by Nina DeTorres Ignacio.