dream girls will never leave you…hanging

A review of CARE DIVAS (musical stage play)

produced by PETA (Phil. Educational Theater Association)

directed by Maribel Legarda

story by Liza Magtoto

music by Vince de Jesus

Last July 17, the only LGBTQ congressional partylist Ladlad sponsored a performance of this musical, which had already run beforehand (early this year if I’m not mistaken). I was intending to catch it during this latest batch of reruns but I opted to view the benefit show to help this partylist which I support as a member and a queer advocate.

The show’s publicity materials promised a “gayer than gay” kind of promise, as the story is about a group of dedicated gay caregivers working in Israel but at night, they don themselves in drag and perform musical numbers in a night club as trans women. It’s a comedy and the main actors — veterans of Philippine theater — have superb comic timing, no doubt. The music is well-written but being Filipinos, perhaps it’s a “biased given” that we have great musical talent in this country anyway. Now it’s just a matter of meshing all these elements to showcase the story as seen through the eyes of our Dream Girls… or Dream Gays?

Now this is where I’m having a problem with the material: I don’t actually know how these individuals self-identify. If they’re gay, then they’re of the pa-girl type, meaning they are nearer the gay spectrum which, when crossed, would translate to being transgender already, meaning they are not “men who love men” but who actually identify as women who love men who happened to be born men. A quick lesson in SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) would reveal that such “gay men” already self-identify and self-present as women, hence they are transwomen already.

But I guess in this country, it’s not such a clear-cut definition of identity since most of those who are actually transwomen already still refer to themselves as bakla or the Filipino term for gay. I guess I am a wee bit bothered because I know these SOGI things by heart, being a queer advocate, and then of course there’s the association STRAP who coined the term “transpinay.” But most of the LGBTQ population in this country has yet to learn what SOGI actually means or what it covers. So thus, to enjoy the show, I have to set aside my being a queer advocate to fully appreciate the nuances of the main characters. (Yes, LGBTQ advocates tend to be snobs when it comes to identity politics discussions, but that’s for another blog post.)

I'm nitpicking but I also shiver at the use of the word "tolerance" in this copy. We queers don't want to be merely tolerated in society. Sounds like we're a nuisance that others have to merely "deal with." Hm more SOGI-focused GSTs perhaps...

The playwright admitted in her notes that one of her “handicaps” in writing this material is that she is not gay. And I’m thinking that may have been true. There are certain nuances that she got spot on regarding how gays and transwomen speak, behave and interact. For instance, the sheer loyalty when others are in need show there, as well as the occasional conflicts and cat fights with each other.  She also got several transwomen’s occasional lesbophobia as captured by this quintessential joke “Ay, hindi ako lesbian!” uttered when a pa-girl gay suddenly shows affection for another pa-girl gay and they suddenly declare that they’re not lesbians. (Well okay, maybe it’s not lesbophobia since if they identify as [trans]women, then being with another [trans]woman would definitely be considered as Sapphic in nature; or maybe it’s the delivery of such a joke that makes it lesbophobic to me, since whenever I hear this uttered, it’s as if the transwoman who uttered it is on a higher plane of society because of her self-identification as a woman — therefore belonging to straight society — and hence they’re not with the marginalized sector where lesbian-identified women are relegated). Hm, on second thought, I wish this joke wasn’t uttered at all na lang. It could have saved me this discourse of discomfort.

But going back to that handicap, the material is well-written in itself but there are several things I also found disturbing in terms of queer portrayal. Like I don’t understand why one of the pa-girl gays had to have a double-handicap of sorts, like she’s really slow and stupid then at the same time she’s also a kleptomaniac. I mean, can we have one negative trait at a time? Her being slow produced a lot of comic lines and subplots within the narrative and that’s super-hilarious. But I don’t see why she has to steal small stuff from her “sisters in performance” or her pa-girl barkada all the time. It’s a character nuance that is not needed, I think. If the point is to demean her, then that shouldn’t be the way.

The girls are already experiencing a lot of negative things in their lives already so I guess that should be enough. One deals with being haunted by her mother’s nagging every so often, which manifests in several “live hallucinations” onstage, as characters she’s talking with suddenly transform devil-like and don the nagging mother voice (or voice-over) to scold her (I actually find this experimentation a bit disturbing, because such experimentations weren’t consistent in the whole play). Another’s dilemma is that she was fired and when in Israel, that automatically makes her illegal until she finds a new job sponsor. The other one deals with being rejected as a performer by a ritzy club owner and is portrayed as a generally bitter person. The last one deals with her personal tug-of-war of emotions as she strives to take care of her elderly Orthodox Jew patient (his daughter already wants to check him into a nursing home instead, to our protagonist’s horror), then her later dilemma of falling in love with an illegal Palestinian man pretending to be an Israeli — a rare chance for a transpinay to find love in unlikely places like Israel.

Yes, the show is that heavy, in terms of themes, characterization and subplots. The songs reflect this heaviness but the genre and the beats of some songs counter its heaviness as well. I guess that is also the point of the play: in life, there are so many ups and downs, and pa-girl gays/transwomen experience them as well, or maybe more, because of who they are (or who they’re not) as a person. Point well taken.

I like the way the stage was rather minimalist at times, but there were times that it appeared too minimalist for its own good. It could have used gayer approaches to lights/color, small props and the like. Like I never saw a rainbow projection/light/decor, not once, in this play that should be as gay as the colors of the rainbow. Correct, the playwright and director being not gay, they will miss that small but very poignant point. Well, there’s a disco ball at the end of the performance and they’re all donned in glittery white diva outfits, but it still doesn’t appear too gay to me. They merely appeared to be divas of disco, ’70s disco to be exact. The yearly home-made gimmicks of people joining the annual Manila/Baguio LGBTQ Pride Marches display better costumes and props.

I don’t know if it’s just me or the performance of several actors were a bit off, or part of the ensemble cast wasn’t working well in the overall scheme of things sometimes. I also found some moments a bit dragging and slow. Must be the direction or the acting, or sometimes both. Can’t remember exact scenes when I felt this. Sometimes when the Palestinian guy (played by a Pinoy, but why?) was on, that was a bit off. And that silent portion when someone was singing and we see the housemates, the bitter one and the kinda slow one, reacting in a mime-like way against the Palestinian boyfriend as he started to live with them in their house. Yes, sometimes the approach in some scenes are a bit off for me. I get that the makers could have been trying to be experimental and all in style, but some techniques don’t work that much, for me at least. In experimentations, consistency should really be the key, especially if there’s a strict narrative that has to be followed. Yeah, that’s just me.

I know it’s weird to compare a stage play to a film but I distinctly remember liking a film which could have been the original inspiration for this musical: Tomer Heymann’s documentary film PAPER DOLLS about Filipino transwomen migrant workers in Israel. Yes, they were caregivers and they perform as drag queens in a group they named Paper Dolls. Hm, come to think of it, the circumstances portrayed in the film are a bit similar to those in Care Divas. I guess Paper Dolls was a strong inspiration indeed.

me with Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann when he visited UPFI Cine Adarna and showed Paper Dolls there in November 2007

Anyway, despite the flaws and my grim-and-determined SOGI-ness stance, I still enjoyed the play because it’s a good effort at surfacing different queer realities of Filipinos. Even if sometimes I felt that the material wasn’t “gay enough” for me, it still matters. I mean, it’s a debate as to who should write queer material. Should it be queers only? If it’s a matter of gender identity (not merely gender), it might help if queers wrote queer material while non-queers could do more research and test it on queers first, or something like that. Just a suggestion.

Anyway, I’d still recommend this musical to those who haven’t seen it. If only for Vince de Jesus and Ricci Chan’s super-funny beki portrayals, it’s worth it. So gora na mga teh. Watchina na kayesh nitey, now nah!

Oh, and apologies to lola Beyonce for reappropriating their musical’s song lyric for my title hehe. Chika lang teh.


~ by leaflens on July 25, 2011.

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