“You may say, ‘But I am only human.’ This is the understatement of your life. You are not only human – you are also divine in potential. The fulfillment of all your goals and aspirations in life depends upon stirring up and releasing more of that divine potential. And there is really nothing difficult about letting this inner light shine. All we must do is correct the tendency to turn off our lights when we face darkness.” – Eric Butterworth, “Discover the Power Within You,” 1992.
Can a college professor teaching arts make miracles? Perhaps, if he moves the hearts and minds of the students entrusted to his care. Can directing “Cabaret” bring out their best? I spent two days shadowing Professor Giovanni Ortega’s acting class and to watch “Cabaret,” which he directed.
At Sunday’s matinee of “Cabaret,” Corey Sorenson, who teaches acting, and Meagan Prahl, who teaches speech and dialect, at Pomona College, were unanimous in their acclaim.
“My heart is still throbbing!”
Prahl was enthusiastic, saying, “The contemporary parallels are insane, the theme of the year is wake up, that we are far enough from LA, and there is definitely a bubble out here. It is poignant. It is well done, it is well acted, it is timely and the community is hungry for more artistic work. The department has really brought this on.”
“‘Cabaret’ is a good show – the theme is what folks are hungry about in this campus. It is bold and clever to put out the people of color and women [in the musical]. It is challenging people and shaking them up from their complacency. There’s a cool thing happening here in campus. It inspires us to come to work and work with the students,” Sorenson said.
When “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” was sung by Jennifer Johnston (Ensemble/Cello/Soloist), it got me in tears, while Sorenson had goosebumps. During intermission, we took turns describing to one another, our perceived chilling moments.
For me, it was when the women and folks of color were segregated towards the margins, which made me gasp, and for Sorenson, it was when the white folks were left on stage, with swastika Nazi signs.
When Layla Moehring (junior at Scripps College majoring in theater and psychology) sang “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” featuring whites-only and the swastika signs projected on the red brick walls, the sounds of prison doors locking up, towards the ending, an older German guy sobbed next to me.
Tim Dang, former East West Players artistic director and now a theater arts lecturer, said this: “I have seen many productions of
‘Cabaret’ as some of my favorite songs are in this play. East West Players produced this show in 1996 (I believe) and double cast (alternating performances) Jennifer Paz (“Miss Saigon”) and Kimiko Gelman in the lead role of Sally Bowles. In this particular production at Pomona College, the separation of the Germans from the Jews in the play was made relevant by the visual separation between the whites and the people of color on stage, giving us memories of Charlottesville when white supremacists with torches resembled the KKK. The audience was stunned not knowing how to react. It was a very powerful moment. The thoughtful and astute direction by Giovanni Ortega made the themes of ‘Cabaret’ relevant today with all of this hate and division happening in our own country. He did a masterful job of casting performers of color in a WWII period piece about the conflict happening in Nazi Germany.”
One scene reminded me of an image of a U.S. soldier carrying a black native, dressed in grass skirts uphill towards the schoolhouse, captioned, “The White Man’s Burden.” It was published in The Journal (Detroit), in the Literary Digest, Vol. 18, no. 7, Feb. 18, 1899, page. 180.
Many did not quite understand the endearing scene when Megan Gratke, appeared in a monkey mask, clad in black leggings, and a skirt of yellow bananas strung around the waist. The song pierced one’s heart when Emcee, sung and danced so well by Juan Zamudio: “If you could see her through my eyes, maybe they will leave us alone…is it a crime to fall in love? All I ask is a little understanding.” At the scene’s end, she removes her mask to reveal a beautiful white Jewish face. Juan played his role to the max that the audience found him quite amusing. He set the tone for the musical, that whenever he appeared, it was a refreshing comic break to the haunting parts of the musical. He enjoyed “performing in heels for his last musical of his college career.
One student lingered inside the Seaver Theatre when the show ended. She said, “My heart is still throbbing.” We were both frozen in the chilling moments of the musical.
“Cabaret,” to those not familiar with it, is a musical about “a nightmarish journey into Nazi Germany with an androgynously wicked Emcee, a trampy, bitter Sally and a decadent cast of characters who all ended up in a train going to a concentration camp at the final curtain. American writer Clifford Bradshaw goes to Berlin on the eve of the Nazi takeover and is fascinated by the city, the decadent life in Berlin. The political situation worsens, Cliff leaves Berlin, and Sally goes back to the cabaret, where everyone can continue to ignore what is going on around them,” Thomas Hischak wrote in The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film and Television.
Both in the U.S. and England had thousands of shows, while Seaver Theater at Pomona College had five sold-out shows, supported by the community.
A roundtable with Giovanni Ortega’s students
Anais Gonzalez Nyberg (Assistant Director/Sophomore), in her short bio on the program, wrote what she loves about Pomona, “including its wacky theater department,” yet she felt committed to motivating the actors.
“There were many difficult roles and the ‘mean characters’ were a challenge to the students,” she wrote. She reminded them that when they succeed onstage to portray what it was like in the 1930s, they are taking a stand on what we don’t want to see today in 2017.
On October 18, I saw the sensory world of acting, taught by Ortega. Twenty-one students introduced themselves from Pomona, Scripps, Pitzer Colleges, majoring in the sciences, arts, business and physics. Some were exchange students from Hongkong and China.
Ortega’s well-appointed resume shows his bold fearlessness in integrating himself in many parts of the world: Cabaret Chansòn in Neukölln, Berlin; Cabaret in Planet Hollywood, Las Vegas; Creation of My Body at the Arts and Culture and Innovation in Sydney and Magda Community Artz in Brisbane; Words of My Body at the Hague Centre of Acting and Creativity in Singapore.
I saw him perform at the “Romance of Magno Rubio” at the Ford Theater and his role as President Marcos in “Imelda: The Musical” at East West Players and the very successful world premiere play that he wrote, “Criers for Hire,” at East West Players. He has been acting, directing and writing plays wherever it took him from Styria, Austria to Varanasi, India to Bern, Switzerland and Chon Buri, Thailand.
A month ago, Ortega signed his hot-off-the-press book of essays and poetry, “Ang Gitano,” at the 4th Filipino-American and International Book Festival. His students came to support him.
This week, after Halloween, he read his original poems: the Letters, Glass of Humility and Harbour ng Adhikain (Harbour of Advocacies) from his new book, “Ang Gitano,” to Farrington High School students in Kalihi, Hawaii and led them in a poetry writing workshop, eliciting tears from some.
He was a visiting lecturer for a year at Pomona College, and is now in his second year of teaching, hopefully on a track to being tenured. With his students, he is a fierce, yet loving mentor, imparting the seven elements of performance: breath, sound, language/rhetoric/delivery, physicality (how the character moves), the sensorial world (smelling, touching), singularity or duality of relationships and emotional connection.
During the class, I was in their sensorial world: breathing, meditating, and centering for 10 minutes.
Ortega taught two techniques of acting: the Strasberg technique and the technique of “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances, using a mixture of reality and fantasy. I grieve about Peter Corpus. I recall him. I am standing, sad and it takes me to my acting scene. After, I call my mom, so I am not re-traumatized.”
Anais, a sophomore, described what she learned: “To be an artist is to avoid being a copy – it is to be fueled by your personal story as well as the interesting story of others. In our autodramas (2nd day of class), we came up with our five to seven-minute story about the best things and the broken parts of our lives. We got so raw with each other. I learned to be honest with who I am.”
No wonder I felt so compelled to watch Kyle Lee, Cabaret’s associate choreographer and Kit Kat Boy, who has danced with Alvin Ailey’s dance company for five years and “drew on his love for West African dance, hip-hop and voguing culture in NY to inform his choreography. “To be an artist is to despise complacency. You really have to have a distaste/disdain for it. But, a hunger for learning, about changing yourself, about growing, as you are not done yet. Yet, I have to force myself to recognize that I am enough, and by playing characters, I learn about myself, what makes me scared, what makes me powerful and focused is not fearing knowledge.”
Emma Elliott (Fraulein Schneider) is ecstatic about her second musical. She learned two lessons: community support is essential as well being open and being vulnerable, “it is allowing yourself to be fully present and not to shy away nor direct the experience. It is also about being able to relate to one another, to offer support going through the scenes, [inhabit] the characters, and ultimately, learning more about ourselves.
Evan Fenner (Clifford Bradshaw) for his senior thesis, had a resonating statement: ”The play’s vision comes from the director (Giovanni Ortega). You are the avenue/channel through which this work is being produced. You make the change and how it affects others. You get to inhabit another character and also, how that affects you/your personality. If you pull those traits onstage, then, these traits can also be part of you. If I can portray a character onstage with good traits, then, the reverse is also true, I can incorporate those good traits in my persona.”
Kyle Lee then made a powerful synthesis: “That’s who you are when they stop telling you what to do. What makes me scared is not having agency, not being able to tell my own story. I learn by playing characters who are not in control, it is easy to be a character. But to be in quieter moments, doubts, cracks in the armor, they are scary to me. Movement makes me feel powerful, the spotlight makes me powerful. It is seeing people attack the moment!”
Whatever he creates, it seems to resonate that I felt compelled to say: “You are an artistic genius. Keep creating from your honest, pure, beating heart.”
From his students to the audience members, all were moved to appreciate the lessons from “Cabaret,” and more importantly, to critique oneself and to keep showing up as one’s best, for humanity.
“There is nothing difficult about letting this inner light shine” — that was true then in the 1930s and more so now, in 2017.
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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 9 years now. She contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Mexico and 22 national parks in the US, in pursuit of her love for arts.