By popular demand, the musical revue Amerikana: Made in the Philippines returned to the San Francisco Bay Area. For one April night, the back room of the Fort McKinley Restaurant and Bar cast a gentle spotlight on the Filipino-American immigrant experience.
Amerikana, a nickname for a Filipino immigrant to the United States, is billed as the true-life story of one woman’s journey to find a better life and locate her long-lost sister. Lead character, and director, Fe de los Reyes discovered as a young adult that she had a sister she’d never met, who had been adopted by an American family and raised without much knowledge of her background. So, she sets off for the USA, braving bureaucratic immigration procedures and a complex job search along the way.
The background music was loud for such a small venue. Especially the Fort McKinley, which offers elegant waterfall and rock sculptures and hanging baskets of flowers. Sometimes the music overwhelmed the delicate lyrics, which revolved around subtle mispronunciations and attitudes conveyed through tone of voice.
Yet, we were able to follow the story, even when we could not make out every word. This was mostly due to Fe de los Reyes and the cast’s strength as performers – their energy, variety of facial expressions, and movement across the entire stage. Fe possesses a natural ability to communicate through humor, without trivializing the loneliness, curiosity, hope and frustration of many of the immigrants she portrayed. She and many others accomplished this through mannerisms and song lyrics, such as the wry ‘Money Isn’t Everything…but it Almost Is.’
The musical only briefly touched upon Fe’s journey to find her sister, which left me curious about how that happened. The program does pay tribute to the sister as a key member of the cast, saying the play likely would never have been produced without her. And her story ties in to the overall plot, as her path reflects the journeys of some immigrants, who discover their heritage at a later age. Still, it would have been interesting to see this explored, especially since Fe brings up her search several times in the first act, while applying for her green card.
Much of the story deals with obtaining paperwork and official permission to come to the United States. This seems almost harder for Fe and her castmates than adjusting to the language, or the people, or the culture here, and serves as a statement of that reality.
One scene portrays the broader confusion and dislocation of the immigrant experience, again with the musical’s characteristic exaggerated humor. Ninjas representing problems such as ignorance, discrimination and misinformation attack Fe in her bedroom, conveying the constant waking nightmare of living in fear of poverty and deportation. Although Fe wins out over each of these masked bandits while the audience cheers, these full-grown men survive, and would pose real danger if they actually hit her, so the scene leaves us uneasy. She’s not vanquished her enemies, just lasted another day.
Even though the characters’ hardships persist, the musical leaves us with a hopeful feeling. Near the end, Fe and much of the rest of the cast come and perform a slow piece on traditional Filipino percussion and string instruments. Here she affirms that she will never forget her beloved Philippines. This song is one of the most complex and musically strongest of the entire production.
When juxtaposed with the finale, a rousing remix of the title Amerikana theme, we see that Fe has found a way to live as both an American and a Filipina. Unlike her sister, she has had the opportunity to understand and embrace the positive aspects of both cultures.