The Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre hosted Sayawan, the 27th annual Pilipino Cultural Night (PCN) put on by Cal Poly’s Pilipino Cultural Exchange (PCE) on Friday and Saturday. The performance was set during the 1920s in Stockton’s taxi dance halls, a prominent setting in Pilipino-American history.
Cal Poly alumnus JD Torres, who was vice president of PCE, returned to see this year’s show.
“They’re touching on a lot of great history in terms of Pilipino-American culture,” he said. “For PCN, that’s really what it’s about. It’s an expression of Pilipino ideals and values, and our history. It’s not something you see in mainstream media, so it’s great to see them write a script that touches on something like that.”
The play follows Pilipina orphan Samantha, who is attending college in America. Her parents were killed during a peaceful protest sparked by race riots. In the play, the local American community is angry with the presence of Pilipinos in Stockton. Their aim is to shut down the Pilipinos’ place of gathering — taxi dance halls. Here, Pilipino men blew off steam by paying to dance with beautiful, and usually white, women. The dance halls were very controversial at this time, and were often equated to brothels. In one line, they are referred to as “a brown man’s vanilla heaven.”
Leading the revolt against the Pilipino community is local police Chief Ryan, a staunch racist responsible for the death of Samantha’s parents. Controversy arises when Chief Ryan’s son, popular athlete Kelby, falls in love with Samantha. Kelby simultaneously grows intrigued with Pilipino culture, but must downplay his interest in Samantha to avoid rejection from his friends and family.
As Kelby sets out to win over Samantha’s heart, he struggles to understand why the community discriminates against his newfound friends. Coming from a privileged family, he is hit hard with the realities of poverty immigrants experience.
Juxtaposed between play scenes, the performance also incorporated PCE’s choir, Ating Hamig, the Modern Dance Crew and the traditional Kasayahan cultural dance troupe. Each performance was strategically woven into the story. Romantic ballads such as Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” were sung by the choir as Samantha and Kelby’s romance intensified. Kasayahan performed after a scene depicting traditional dances at a Pilipino party.
“I like how they incorporated the traditional dances and modern dances in between,” aerospace engineering freshman Tristan Golds said.
The placement of each dance helped convey the mood of the preceding scenes.
The strength of the evening was the immense talent found among PCE members. The script, written by students involved with PCE, provided a provocative and telling narrative of Pilipino history. The stage decor was kept to a minimum; many of the sets were composed of a few props and a photo-projected backdrop. This left it up to the impressive acting skills of the cast to tell the story.
One critique of the play would be that Pilipino students were cast as their caucasian counterparts. This was ironic, as the characters were supposed to be racist toward Pilipinos. It is understandable given that the entire crew is involved in PCE, and more so, the acting and dialogue made up for it. It was not difficult to tell who was who.
At times, racial stereotypes were exaggerated to provide comic relief to the otherwise heavy tone of the play. The script masterfully used humor to balance out serious themes, making for an overall light-hearted performance. The stereotypes were not only funny, but also helped illustrate how Pilipinos act in real life.
Business administration sophomore Denise Hensley was most impressed by the use of dance to demonstrate culture.
“I’m actually Pilipino, so I wanted to go see it,” she said. “They really used dance to their advantage. They mixed in old dances like Tinikling, and also modern hip-hop, which I think Pilipinos now are really into. We dance and sing all the time, so they hit every aspect of our culture.”
Sayawan’s themes were hard-hitting. The play addressed racism and compassion and the audience was challenged to reconsider the stigma of dancing with men for money. Sayawan depicted a woman’s struggle through poverty. Samantha leads a double-life of paradox as both a taxi hall dancer and an admirable woman of character.
Every time Samantha stood up for her rights or defended her culture, the crowd went wild. Many of the audience members came to support a loved one in the performance, or were a part of the local Pilipino community. The crowd, reflective of the Pilipino presence in San Luis Obispo, was small but highly enthusiastic.
Audience member Donna Blow, who is not Pilipino said: “I was not really aware of the Taxi Hall history and the Pilipino community. That was an area I found interesting and enlightening.”
Following a climactic outbreak of violence, the performance ended with a moving segment of spoken word that cried for empathy and equality. After this came the curtain call, playing the Black Eyed Peas’ pop-hit “Bebot.” The song mixes traditional Pilipino drums and tambourine with a modern hip-hop beat. It pays homage to Black Eyed Peas singer Apl.de.ap’s Pilipino heritage, but is also known outside the Pilipino realm because of the groups’ international success.
The curtain call had every audience member — Pilipino and non-Pilipino alike — moving, clapping and singing along with the vibrant, proud cast members. They chanted: “Pinoy ka sigaw na, sige! Kung maganda ka sigaw na, sige! Kung buhay mo’y mahalaga, sige! Salamat sa iyong suporta. Pilipino … Pilipino … PILIPINO!”
This translates to: “If you’re Pilipino, shout it out, c’mon! If you’re beautiful, shout it out, c’mon! If your life is valuable, c’mon! Thank you for your support. Pilipino … Pilipino … PILIPINO!”