The East West Players’ premiered “Criers for Hire” at the David Henry Hwang Theater on a rainy night on Wednesday, February 17. Starring Broadway veteran Joan Almedilla, Nicole Barredo, Samantha Cutaran, Rudy Martinez, and LA18 “Kababayan Today” host Giselle “G” Tongi, the play warmly celebrates Filipino and Filipino-American culture, generation, and the excitement and challenges of finding home in a new place.
Set in California’s predominantly Asian neighborhood of Monterey Park in the 90s, the play centers on mother Aurora/“Baby” (played by Almedilla), Remedios/“Meding” (played by Tongi) and Eugenia/“Henny” (played by Cutaran), three struggling Filipina women who work as professional funeral criers to make ends meet. Baby has petitioned her 14-year-old daughter, Ligaya/“Gaya” (Barredo), to study and live with her in the US from the Philippines, and the funeral criers are eager to teach Gaya their somber line of work. However, upon arrival and enrollment in high school, young, heavily-accented Gaya is more concerned with immersing herself in American life and culture.
Criers for Hire, written by Giovanni Ortega and directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, is hilarious, heartwarming, and filled with cultural references that Filipinos and Fil-Ams alike will enjoy. For non-Tagalog speakers in the audience, the show’s program provides a helpful glossary of “Taglish” (Tagalog-English) words, and uniquely projects English translations onto the stage.
“…I’ve never played a Filipino before–it’s such a great opportunity. I could also relate to Ligaya as far as her culture shock, because I was 14 when I moved here from the Philippines as well,” actress Nicole Barredo shared. “It is also amazing that I get to work in East West Players, the longest-running professional theater of color in the US, bringing our culture out to Los Angeles.”
Inspired by the immigrant experience in the United States, “Criers for Hire” reveals important challenges and themes: culture shock, assimilation, conflict, coming-of-age, and sacrificial love. It brilliantly explores Filipino values (education, strict parenting, close-knit family ties) and Chinese traditions (burning of Joss paper in funerals), and focuses on the distinctive ways in which people express emotion. Almedilla, Tongi, and Cutaran have hilarious chemistry, while Barredo and Martinez (playing the charming classmate, Narcisco) add depth to their quirky, flirting scenes. The complex relationship between mother and daughter is moving and reminiscent of any child with a hard-working parent.
“We wanted it to be an all-out comedy, but we realized there was an emotional connection, especially with the relationship between the mother and her daughter,” said Tim Dang, producing artistic director of East West Players. “People in the audience were saying that it reminds them of their own relationship with their mother, how they did not appreciate all the things she had sacrificed for them. We added these poignant moments that will have an impact and touch the heart.”
The unique set design also plays an important role in the show, which utilizes sliding panels to change scenes and reveal different locations around the city. The climax also includes a gorgeous, originally-written musical number–though is not a musical–involving the main cast of characters.
“When we found out our cast has musical talent and background [including lead actress Joan Almedilla], Jon [Lawrence Rivera] thought it would be great to have Joan sing. The characters humming the song’s melody during the scene changes also builds up the show’s music, so it’s not completely random,” said Dang. “Our cast has contributed so much to this production; we had so many suggestions on where this plot and its characters could go, and changes were made to script every day. The show is not set until the day before opening.”
Dang also noted the importance of diversity in arts and culture, which is key for the East West Players, celebrating 50 years of Asian American theater.
“People want to see themselves, their stories, on stage. Doing a play for the Filipino community is one of the great things we have to offer. We also give Filipino actors a chance to play Filipino,” he said. “There is a lot of support for these kinds of plays, and we always keep in mind why certain Asian American communities support the arts.”
“It’s mind-blowing, especially to work with this cast,” Barredo added. “There’s not a lot of opportunities for Filipino plays, so when something comes up like this, you jump on it. Bringing Filipino culture out in the creative space is something we need to do more in our community.”
Latino actor Rudy Martinez commented, “The best part is being around these four women. As an actor in LA, I’m so committed to doing really diverse theater. I’ve learned so much about Filipino culture by being a part of this. People need to know the hardships of women who work. Recognize what the women in our families have struggled with and gone through, in order to help us be where we are today.”
“I guess I’d say the main message of ‘Criers for Hire’ is to call your mom,” Martinez laughed.
The East West Players’ performance of Criers for Hire, in community partnership with Asia Society and FilAm ARTS, will be at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts (120 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012) from Wednesday through Sunday until March 13. Tickets, discounts, and detailed information may be found online at www.eastwestplayers.org.