Mar 4, 2010

Folk, Present And To Come

Future Folk is a challenging title; it implies a vision to the future, but also a glance to the past. The play, now on at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille, centers on the lives of Filipino nannies who come to work in Canada. Produced by Canadian company Sulong Theatre Collective, the show is a reminder of the silent caregivers who populate households and often endure terrible treatment in order to support their own families back home. The word "sulong" means "battle cry" in Tagalog and is a suitable match for the show's angry undercurrent; it's described as a piece that "shouts, wails and screams on behalf of brown women everywhere".

Great, but there's been some criticism that the play is too agitprop in its depiction of live-in nannies' struggles in Canada. One Canadian newspaper recently ran two interesting pieces contrasting actual nanny reactions with their theater critic's view; it was a good insight into the ways celebrated slice-of-life theater isn't always reflected with exuberant critical acceptance. Not that Catherine Hernandez cares.

Sulong Theatre Collective's co-founder wrote Future Folk without worrying over whether balance was being served. As she told me (below), balance and truth aren't always friends. Hernandez is a feisty one-woman theater dynamo whose first play, Singkil, was nominated for an astounding seven Dora Awards. She's worked with a bevvy of celebrated Canadian theater companies, including fuGEN, Buddies in Bad Times, Native Earth, Aluna, and many others. Hernandez set out with the intention of challenging stereotypes and shaking people out of their comfort zones -all while remaining respectful (read: loving) toward the original women's stories.

How much of Future Folk is based on direct experience?

All of it is based on direct experiences of women we interviewed. Most of these women were still in the caregiver program, others had just completed it.

Any specific inspirations?

The use of Filipino folk arts to tell the story of Filipinos now. I realized there were so many "harvest" dances in our dance canon. I wanted to see if we could use the same vocabulary to tell the story of our women harvesting money for their families back in the Philippines.

What was the main challenge in theatricalizing nanny experiences?

First, it was actually speaking to the caregivers. I would book time to speak with them on their day off, only to have their employers cut their day off due to their own busy lives. Next, was to be absolutely honest about our -as in the collective's -position of privilege. We had to remember that we were not them. Although I worked as a caregiver, I was never live-in, nor was I a mother at that time wondering about the safety of my children while caring for others. When we admitted this to ourselves, we were able to delve deeper into their experiences with curiosity and open-hearts instead of assumptions.


How do you balance the bad experiences with the good ones in the work?

This is one of the major comments about our work: the balance. Hmmm... I think it's telling when every caregiver I met has complaints about the power struggle with their employer. It's even more telling when people outside of the caregiving community and those who are employers bring up the "good" side. What it means to me is that there is an obvious disconnect with the realities of these women. I had a conversation with playwright Maja Ardal about this, and she said, point-blank, that it matters little to show balance. What matters is giving voice to the voiceless. These women are definitely voiceless. So balance be damned. I am not in the business of making people feel okay about themselves. I am in the business of helping people be self-critical. Balance doesn't do that. Truth does.

Who did you write this for?

I wrote this for both the caregivers and for those outside of the caregiving community. For caregivers, I wanted them to see their story onstage and to know that their lives were remembered and honoured by someone... I wrote this for the average Canadian who might have a range of emotions seeing the show, anything from "I'm not like this" to "These women are so lucky for the chance to be here -why complain?"

How have you felt at various nannies' reactions?

It has been overwhelming. When we first performed a ten-minute excerpt at the Kultura Filipino Arts Festival at the Kapisanan Centre, we had two caregivers in the audience. They came backstage sobbing and thanking us for portraying them. We knew we had to continue, no matter what. When we perform on March 7th, we will be performing for free to a house full of caregivers. That's when I feel our job will be done.

What do you hope audiences come away with?

I want each audience to come home that night, look right inside their hearts and ask themselves what they truly think about migrant workers. They'll probably be surprised by what they find. We, as the collective certainly were. Throughout this process of development, I can't tell you how much respect I have gained for these people. I will be forever humbled.

Future Folk runs at Theatre Passe Muraille through March 13th.

Photography by Alex Filipe.

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