My introduction to Rolling the R’s happened in 1996, when R. Zamora Linmark read “They Like You Because You Eat Dog.” It’s a poem so entertainingly honest, it angers and empowers at the same time.
Rolling the R’s introduces characters rarely seen in American literature. They are Filipinos rooted in a place to which no Honolulu tourist dares trek. They ramble about identity, reveal secrets, and enable and deny the dramas in their tropical lives. Linmark’s teenage fantasy playground spinning in seventies soundtrack emotes the familiar to Filipino Americans and especially to immigrants like me.
In November 2008, I directed a stage reading of Rolling the R’s: The Play at Source Theatre in Washington, DC. We packed the house—standing room only. Makakoa Enterprises, Inc., a catering company owned by a Hawaiian and a hula sister, donated kalua pork, King’s Hawaiian Bread, and Spam musubi for our reception. At the end of the show, we performed a hula for Linmark, who was in town to be honored among 100 awardees by Out Magazine.
Rolling the R’s: The Play must bring to life the book’s portrayal of Kalihi. The 1978 disco soundtrack certainly sets time and livens up the production. But in order to truly experience the characters and their home, the actors who play Edgar and Katrina must be able to speak pidgin, and Vicente, Irma, and the daldaleras jam in Tagalog. As director, I put the spotlight on the musicality of the language, something that was missing in previous stage readings of Rolling that I’ve been involved with.
Two of the main characters, Edgar and Katrina, are the pidgin princesses. No matter how good the actor, if s/he does not know pidgin’s flare, sometimes tough and always laced with sweet, the play will not work. So in my DC reading, I cast two locals who grew up speaking pidgin: Kaimana Chee as Edgar and Debralyn Andres as Katrina.
In the case of Vicente, the third main character, the Tagalog-accented English must be done right. It hurts my ears when fluent and native English speakers fail at speaking with an “ethnic” accent, even our own. Mario Sengco, who immigrated to the States as a child, played Vicente. We did tweak his English a bit to the “fresh-off-the-jet” side. But because he lived through it, he was able to roll his r’s.
I cast actors who were working professionals, beginners and non-actors, including the three leads, one of the daldaleras, and Mrs. Takemoto. To me, it was more important that they knew the language and its nuances than that they had theater techniques.
I was a non-actor myself before I learned the craft of acting and directing from TnT / Teatro ng Tanan (Theater for Everyone) in San Francisco. I’ve directed successful productions, even a musical with original composition, with half of the cast non-actors that we trained through a series of workshops. It’s a challenge and a joy to nurture someone with potential into a blooming actor.
In all three readings, I’ve always played one of the two daldaleras. I find it more fun to spar commentaries with the other daldalera if she also speaks Tagalog. It doesn’t feel forced, and becomes an interspersed, flawless play-by-play that builds to uncover their own tragedies. And it’s really funny.
We love these daldaleras so much that Linmark and I play them—offstage— when we see each other or chat on Messenger. We refer to each other as Mare, the way the daldaleras do. It’s like saying girl or sis. But in the Filipino sense, Mare connotes a deeper connection when one is a godmother of the other’s child and sometimes they’re both to their children.
Another important character is Irma, the abused woman who sings her longing for home. I’ve played Irma a few times when Linmark invited me to join him at his book readings. My favorite part is singing Manila, a big hit when I was growing up in Pasay. But the song turns almost ghostly when Irma’s sufferings are revealed.
Irma is a familiar character among readers of Filipino literature. In the classic Noli Me Tangere written by Dr. Jose Rizal, national hero of the Philippines, the character Sisa remains the quintessential emblem of injustices under the Spaniards. She’s a woman who lost her mind after years of abuse from her husband and of searching for her two sons, who also suffered and died serving the not-so-Lordfearing friars. This was the ultimate Filipino tragedy.
In Rolling the R’s, Irma, with beauty queen features and perfectly tanned skin, becomes Kalihi’s Sisa, bearing the heaviest cross, stripped off the aloha that paradise promised. The magic of Rolling is Linmark’s ability to use humor, camp, grit, and honesty to educate his readers about Filipino life in America.
Linmark also gets political with his instructions to the producing company to cast Asian or Brown actors for the white/Caucasian parts. He allows donning a blond wig perhaps to throw insult back to the Western productions of faking Asian features to portray Chinese or Japanese or Vietnamese…or casting white actors to play an intergalactic Filipino or, today, a Hawaiian.
As the word suggests—ka lihi, the edge in Hawaiian—Linmark wrote the stage version really to push the boundaries of thinking in the community about being gay, Filipino, young, American, local, immigrant, abuse, shame, and the freedom to lay it all out. It’s Filipino laundry washed in the open.
Rolling as a play celebrates in life-size forms Filipinos and our diversity. Linmark’s documentation of life seldom seen and appreciated sets this work apart from other works of Filipino American writers. The book deserves to be taught in many more universities, colleges, and high schools. The play deserves another reading, another full production. It’s been a fiesta to be part of Rolling the R’s.
Congratulations to R. Zamora Linmark on twenty years of making people laugh, think, and learn how to roll their r’s!