Queer Filipina American coming-of-age play to debut in San Diego this December

Some of the cast members for “Every Day Vanilla”: (from left) Anthony Erum Jongco (Andrew/Brûlée), Gingerlily Lowe (Auntie Sam), Gretchen (Principal Alexander, Cherry, Freya), Earl Paus (director),  Lani Gobaleza (playwright/Frankie), Sasha Foo (Francesca), Hillary Soriano (Flora), Kate Nguyen (Jesse), and Kyle Blaine Tiglao (Aubrey)

SAN DIEGO – Spare Pen presents the premiere of “Every Day Vanilla,” the debut play of writer-actor Lani Gobaleza. Performances begin at MOXIE Theatre on Thursday, December 14 through Friday, December 29, 2023. This production is presented separately from MOXIE Theatre’s programming.

According to a release sent to media, the plot for the play goes like this: The year is 2006. Seventeen-year-old Filipina American writer Frankie Robles dreams of escaping San Diego for somewhere less “vanilla.” Over the course of 10 years, she begins to reexamine her relationship with her hometown through the eyes of her family, friends, and lovers.

The release adds that this play contains some mild language, LGBTQIA+ stories, and intergenerational conflict. Trigger warnings include references to domestic abuse and domestic suicide.

The cast for “Every Day Vanilla” includes Lani Gobaleza as Frankie, Sasha Foo as Francesca (TV reporter-turned-playwright known most recently for “Choice Words”), Hillary Soriano (actress and producer) as Flora, Kate Nguyen as Jesse, Kyle Blaine Tiglao as Aubrey, Gingerlily Lowe (Asian Story Theater/Chinese Story Theater founding producer and educational director) as Samantha, Anthony Erum Jongco (IT by day, artist by night) as Andrew/Brûlée, and Gretchen Conrad (Meisner- and Chekov-trained actress) as Principal Alexander, Cherry Castillo, and Freya.

The play is directed by Earl Paus (They/He/Siya), a queer Pilipinx-American award-winning director and actor. Earl harnesses the magic of theatre and film to act out the truth so others can live theirs. They studied Theatre Arts for social change at SFSU and created liberating art, theatre, and film in the Bay Area for over 10 years. This year, Earl also wrote, directed, and acted in their first short film “Glimpse” which premiered at the San Diego Filipino Film Festival and won the Audience Choice Award. They are honored to have “Every Day Vanilla” be their directorial stage debut in their hometown of San Diego.

Earl Paus (director) and Lani Gobaleza (playwright, Frankie)
Photos courtesy of Enrique + Charlene Siliezar/Studio Luniste LLC

Supporting playwright Lani Gobaleza and director Earl Paus, the creative team includes Miki Iwasaki and Jessica Falstad of Sunset Projects (scenic design), Diana Corpus (costume design), Eliza Vedar (sound design), Sierra (lighting design), Coza Joy “CJ” Mendoza (stage manager), and Bianca Nialani (assistant stage manager). Filipino American filmmaker Marissa Roxas will also be contributing as cinematographer for video content that will be included in the play, and Vietnamese-American artist Anie Quynh will contribute original artwork.

Playwright Lani Gobaleza answered a few questions posed to her. Following is the brief Q&A:

Question (Q): Tell us about your upbringing.

Lani Gobaleza (LG): “I grew up in the Valencia Park neighborhood of Southeast San Diego, or ‘Daygo’, where I was raised by a Filipina immigrant single mother, my grandparents, my aunties, and my uncle. My father was in the Navy, and I saw him infrequently. I attended Nye Elementary, O’Farrell for middle school, and Morse High School. I started working at Seaport Fudge Factory when I was 16 years old so that I could start saving for college. Whenever I mentioned that I was from Southeast San Diego, I would almost always get comments about how [it is] ‘growing up in the hood.’ I feel very proud to have grown up where I did, and I wish more people felt the same. A lot of people from the area are doing some amazing creative work. After that, I studied history and theater at UC Berkeley and lived and worked in Japan. I’ve since returned to San Diego, where I work as a copywriter and co-own a specialty tea business in La Jolla with my partner.”

Actor-writer Lani Gobaleza grew up in Southeast San Diego, and studied history and theater at UC Berkeley. She went back to San Diego after living and working in Japan, and currently works as a copywriter and co-owns a specialty tea business in La Jolla with her partner.

Q: Tell us about your background in theater.

LG: “I was involved in theater and performing arts since the fifth grade through the First United Methodist Church of National City, the San Diego Youth Master Chorale, and Morse High School drama productions. I participated in Theater for Social Change at UC Berkeley but ended up pursuing academic and technical writing roles after graduating. That’s probably more than you asked for, but it’ll all make more sense when you see the play. ‘Every Day Vanilla’ is inspired by my personal experiences, more or less. There are definitely some parallels. For example, my mother’s name is Leila, and she named me Leilani. In the play, the mother, portrayed by the talented Sasha Foo, is Francesca. I play her daughter, Frankie.

Q: What was the inspiration for the play?

LG: “Besides my upbringing, this play is very loosely based on a creative non-fiction story I wrote for a local anthology. When I wrote this short story, I was living in a rural town in Japan, teaching English through the JET Program. I didn’t have WiFi, and my rent was $200. I was in my mid-20s, and it was the first time in my life that I had my own room. And I just remember breaking down that first night because I felt so guilty enjoying myself while my family was struggling to pay their mortgage. I talked to my mom, and she reassured me — as mothers do — that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. But other first-generation college graduates understand that it’s incredibly difficult to enjoy things like this without thinking of family, especially coming from a family that is so group-oriented. I was grateful that Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew recognized the value in my story because I doubted it had any value at all.

“Fast forward to 2019, my partner gifted me a mentoring session with author Chavisa Woods. During my session, I expressed feeling disconnected from San Diego as an adult. Chavisa encouraged me to explore that disconnect in my writing. A few years after that, I revisited that advice and turned my short story into a play. I’d written short plays in college and edited screenplays, but this was my first stage play. I went about it with very clear goals — I wanted to include everything I wish I saw in stories growing up: single mothers, mother figures, representation of Filipinos who aren’t Catholic (I grew up Methodist, and I would get made fun of for that growing up), Southeast Asian representation, the introvert’s struggling of feeling punk rock but presenting like a pushover, sapphic love that doesn’t end in death, drag queens, first-generation guilt, depression and anxiety in its many forms, and more.”

Q: Why self-produce?

LG: “I decided to independently produce the play for many of the same reasons that authors self-publish their books. I didn’t really want to wait for someone to validate my story. Sometimes, you have to make the magic happen yourself. I received a lot of helpful feedback through table reads and workshopping sessions, which included industry professionals and members of my own family. I’d love to explore more traditional routes in the future — in both theater and film — but I felt like this was something I had to do.

“It’s been a whirlwind. Self-producing a play — or producing one in general — feels very similar to running a business. I’m learning a lot and feel fortunate because the community, which includes friends and strangers alike, has been really curious, supportive, and receptive.”

Q: Anything else?

LG: “Thank you for considering writing about ‘Every Day Vanilla’ in your publication. It truly means the world to me to have the opportunity to share something so personal to me.

Gobaleza is a 2023 recipient of the William Male Foundation grant. She will use the funds for production costs, including artist and scenic design stipends. Meanwhile, Spare Pen is a writers club based in San Diego, which was started by Gobaleza in 2021.

To keep up-to-date with the “Every Day Vanilla” on social media, log on via Instagram at @everydayvanilla_play. More information about the play, including cast and crew bios, sponsorship opportunities and ticket information, can be found at https://everydayvanilla.com.

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