If you live in Singapore, you’ll see the work of Filipinos all around you, or hear it. Babes Conde has certainly contributed plenty over the years: ‘I first came to Singapore in the late ’70s when my then-band The New Minstrels played at the Goodwood Park Hotel. We were persuaded to stay and perform at other places, so I did,’ says the feisty fifty-something, smiling at the memories. ‘While here, I also recorded originals, including “Funny”, which is still played on Gold 90FM. I met many people, including Dick Lee – who was my band’s groupie – he asked me to help out with his musical Beauty World. And I’ve been involved in thirty-or-so musicals since – and I was the vocal coach for two seasons of Singapore Idol.’
Similarly, you might be familiar with the work of Filomar Tariao. ‘I came in 2004 to perform in shows like Everything But the Brain and Imelda’s Boys,’ says the baby-faced 37-year old performer and choreographer. ‘I’m also a teacher at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and have choreographed everything from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to opera La Traviatta.’
What they have in common, other than being fiercely Filipino, is that they’re the founders (along with director Dr Nadina Jose, 55, and Celia Defato, 52) of the newly launched Entablado Theatre Company (ETC), a new performing arts group dedicated to representing the Filipino community. This December, they present their debut performance: The Romance of Magno Rubio, a multi-award-winning Pinoy play that features rhymes, word play, Filipino martial arts and song.
‘Singapore’s Filipino community has grown to over 180,000 people,’ says Condes. ‘We need something to bond the community, lift up the spirits of those who miss home and share our culture with other cultures – there needs to be a better appreciation of just who Filipinos are among Singapore’s diversity. ETC will provide a stage for expressing who Filipinos are.’
Adds Tariao: ‘There’s never been a show in Singapore about Filipinos as a people – Filipinos imbibe the culture they’re in; what people here see is only a thin dilution of what’s Filipino, or Filipino actors staging foreign productions like Rent.'
Magno is based on a story of Filipino migrant workers in the United States during the 1930s, when ‘stoop’ labour – bent-bodied agricultural labour often using foreign workers for minimal wages – was a matter of course. The titular character journeys in search of the American Dream, only to find loneliness, discrimination and fantasies of love with a beautiful blonde.
‘Magno is a landmark play for Asian and Filipino Theater,’ says Tariao. ‘I saw it in 2003 or 2004 in Manila, freshly returned from being a migrant dancer in the United States. It enthralled me – it dealt with issues that were not only emotional but economical, in a way that didn’t proselytise. It was so powerful, the audience would give it standing ovations every performance.’
But do Magno’s trials still reflect the lives of migrant Filipinos today? ‘I’d like to believe things are better for Filipinos, especially in Singapore,’ says Conde. ‘No longer do domestic helpers form the majority of Filipino migrants. Filipinos are in the service sector, in the banking and IT industry, running their own companies.’ Defato continues, ‘Globally, there are still Filipinos living under the conditions depicted in the play. But anyone who left his homeland for work will recognise the disorientation, isolation, homesickness and loneliness in Magno. And the same qualities of hope, love and endurance will see them through.’
ETC hopes to provide some of this love for the local community. Magno features a stellar multi-national and multi-racial cast – notably with US-based Filipino Gelo Francisco, who played Magno in LA and will reprise his role, as well as several local Filipino actors. Looking forward, Tariao says: ‘we’d like to be more involved with the local Pinoy community, giving dance, acting and singing workshops. We’re also working on providing cheaper Magno tickets for migrant workers.’
‘We want to keep our focus on productions that delve into current issues – migration, alienation and integration into the global community,’ he concludes. ‘While whatever production we mount will inevitably be influenced by our cultural backgrounds, I see ETC evolving into a platform not only for Filipino-themed performances, but edgy, contemporary South-East Asian theatre.’
The Romance of Magno Rubio is at the DBS Arts Centre until 8 Dec.