When the writer Jessica Hagedorn was first approached by director Michael Greif about adapting her novel Dogeaters for the stage, she was dubious. “I could see it as a film, but for the stage? It’s so big and busy and dense,” Hagedorn recalled recently.
Those are all accurate words to describe the novel, which was nominated for a National Book Award when it came out in 1990. A sprawling pastiche about contemporary life in the Philippines, Dogeaters bounces between two different narratives: the 1950s adolescence of Rio Gonzaga, a movie-obsessed girl from an extended upper-middle-class family, and the scrappy existence of Joey Sands, a poor young half-black male prostitute who witnesses in 1982 the assassination of a popular politician (a character not unlike Benigno Aquino). These stories are intertwined with snippets of recent Filipino history refracted through radio melodramas, news reports, and the Hollywood dreams that equally infect waiters, porn stars, generals, and beauty queens, including First Lady Imelda Marcos herself. The result is a portrait of Filipino life as a turbulent, exuberantly tacky post-colonial soap opera unraveling in the shadow of the superpowers.

The challenges of turning the book into a play did not deter Greif. “I thought the novel told a great story,” he said in a telephone interview, “and the effect of the world of entertainment on this culture was so fascinating and alive and inherently theatrical.” He not only commissioned Hagedorn to write the play but has shepherded it from its 1998 world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, where Greif was artistic director at the time, through a series of developmental workshops to a full production at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, where it opens tonight. 

The New York staging of Dogeaters has a cultural significance beyond that of most literary adaptations. Opening at one of Manhattan’s most distinguished theaters brings the play as close to mainstream American culture as any dramatic work about Filipino life has ever gotten. To call it the Filipino equivalent of Fiddler on the Roof may be a stretch, but its importance to Filipinos is certainly comparable to the visibility David Henry Hwang brought to Chinese-American culture with his plays in the early 1980s. And the stage production of Dogeaters marks the maturation of a community of Filipino American theater artists in New York City that has been ripening for several years. 

The cast of 15 features nearly all the heavy hitters of that increasingly tight-knit community. They include veteran actors Ching Valdes-Aran and Jojo Gonzalez; Mia Katigbak, artistic director of the National Asian American Theater Company (which recently mounted an all-Asian production of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba directed by Chay Yew and starring Valdes-Aran); Ralph Peña, artistic director of Ma-Yi Theater Company, which is devoted to producing Filipino- American work; and Alec Mapa, who appeared on Broadway in Hwang‘s M. Butterfly and at the Public in Yew’s A Language of Their Own.
“What a joy to bring these performers together,” said Greif, “and how easy it was because of their commitment to the material, and to Jessica.”

Hagedorn, 51, is herself a highly regarded figure in the overlapping worlds of downtown theater and Asian-American literature. Born and raised in Manila, she moved to San Francisco with her mother when she was 14. She began writing poetry with the encouragement of Kenneth Rexroth, and for ten years she led a rock band called the Gangster Choir. When she came to New York in 1978 for a series of readings with two friends, Ntozake Shange and Thulani Davis, Hagedorn fell in love with the city and decided to stay. She has collaborated on multimedia theater projects with Laurie Carlos, Robbie MacCauley, and Han Ong, and she wrote the screenplay for Sue Lea Chang’s film Fresh Kill. In addition to publishing two novels and two volumes of her own poetry and short prose, she edited Charlie Chan Is Dead, a groundbreaking anthology of Asian-American writing. 

“Jessica is an incredible community builder,” observed the novelist and playwright Sarah Schulman. “She’s so bright, charismatic, and determined that through the sheer force of her personality and her commitment, she’s been able to open a door into the mainstream that has allowed a lot of people who have been forced to work subculturally to be seen. That’s what makes this moment important historically. No matter how Dogeaters is received, Filipino representation onstage will be different forever.” 

The depiction of Filipino life that Hagedorn offers in Dogeaters is not especially flattering. Even the title has offended many fellow Filipinos. It’s a pejorative term that dates back to the Philippine-American War, when American soldiers used it to make fun of the natives. “There are certain regions in the country where the indigenous people eat dogs,” Hagedorn explained. “It’s just another source of food. Cows and pigs are acceptable, but many Westerners are uncomfortable with the idea of dogmeat because they see the dog as a delightful pet that shouldn’t be on the table. It’s a metaphor for a lot of things in the culture that we feel ashamed of and don’t want to share with the outside world. I like challenging that and turning the whole thing around.”

The complicated history of the Philippines is unknown to most Americans, even though the country was a U.S. territory from 1898 (when Spain ceded its 300-year colonial rule in exchange for $20 million) until it was granted independence in 1946. Most people would be surprised to learn that Filipinos form the largest population of Asian-Americans -- Chinese and Vietnamese are second and third -- or that the 7,017 islands that make up the Philippine archepelago contain more than 70 distinct languages and cultures. 

What’s remarkable about Dogeaters is that Hagedorn encapsulates a huge amount of this historical material, but she does so by running it through a variety of pop-culture filters (movies, music, radio plays, commercials). And the characters speak a fluid mixture of English, Spanish, and Tagalog. This collage aspect has given the novel considerable cachet as a post-modern literary artifact, as well. An online search for references to Dogeaters easily turns up academic papers with titles like “Hybridity, Difference, and Postmodern Subjectivity in Diasporic Locations” and “Transversing Nationalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Dogeaters.”

For Hagedorn, the form of her novel wasn’t just a literary strategy. “That’s what Manila is like for me,” she said. “Manila is a collage, from the very high to the very low, from the very pious to the incredibly depraved. It’s this wonderful tropical city that can’t be easily described or defined. So why should the novel be linear and regimented? It couldn’t, if I was to properly capture what I was trying to capture.”

In 1997, with the help of a residency at the Sundance Theater Laboratory, Hagedorn set about the challenge of whittling her sprawling, nonlinear narrative into a more focused theatrical form. When the play opened the following year at the La Jolla Playhouse, the Los Angeles Times review said, “She’s halfway there.” In that production, Hagedorn attempted to maintain the novel’s split time-frame, which many viewers found confusing. During the subsequent workshops leading up to the Public Theater production, she decided to set the play entirely in 1982, keeping Rio’s return to the Philippines for her grandmother’s funeral but cutting all the scenes from her childhood.

This was a tough choice for Hagedorn. Unlike the characters based on famous Filipinos -- Imelda Marcos, Senator Aquino, action-star- turned-President Joseph Estrada, and a beauty-pageant winner who joined the rebel army -- Rio is very much an autobiographical figure. “First I thought of taking Rio out completely,” said Hagedorn, “because sometimes I find the conceit of the young writer too precious and overdone. We tried that, and I immediately knew it wasn’t what I wanted. But I had to figure out a way to make her as active as anyone else. I had a lot of talks with [Public Theater producer] George Wolfe, and he kept asking me about the Rio character. How does she earn the right to summarize everything at the end?”

In contrast to Rio, the black gay hustler Joey Sands is a wholly invented character who would seem quite far from Hagedorn’s experience. However, two other gay characters in the play -- the high-strung bar-owner and drag performer Perlita (played by Mapa) and Chiquiting, Imelda Marcos’s hairdresser (played by Peña) -- are based directly on two of her mother’s closest friends. 

“One was a manicurist,” she recalled, “and the other guy was our seamstress, whose name was Linda, but we called him Ding. I don’t think my father knew he was actually a man. He dressed in drag all the time. He wore toreador pants, makeup, and a long ponytail. He was great. He and my mother would talk and forget I was there. And, my dear, the voice of Perlita is my mother. ‘My blood pressure! My blood is boiling from screaming so much at that idiot!’ That’s my mother. I never forgot that dialogue.”

The play also has uncanny autobiographical resonance for Valdes-Aran, who plays Imelda Marcos. When she was a young child, her father was a physician who was a close friend of Ferninand Marcos, then a charismatic young congressman. “He was my sister’s baptismal godfather,” she said in an interview. “He and Imelda attended my sister’s wedding in 1984. I knew all those people.” Having known Imelda doesn’t make it easy to play her. “She’s a real person. I don’t want to play her as a caricature. And at the same time she is a caricature. Finding the balance is most difficult for me.”

The peculiarly intimate juxtaposition of private and public life in the Philippines becomes in Dogeaters a microcosm for the increasingly surreal world we all live in, Hagedorn suggested. “That’s what I’m striving to show -- how reality and what I call ‘the dreamtime,’ escapism, can actually merge. You can lose yourself in this soap opera but after a while the soap opera starts to reflect what’s really going on in your life. But what comes first, your real drama or the fake drama? Are we living according to what we’ve seen in the movies? Is that how we expect romance to occur because we’ve seen it a million times in the movies? The Philippines is so steeped in love for pop culture, fantasy life. It’s probably one way to get through the day in a hard life. They work hard and they dream hard and they love hard and they die hard. There’s this fixation with movie stars, pop stars, worship, and a sense of melodrama. It’s very effusive. Other cultures may find it a bit much, but I just love it. I love the bigness, the flamboyance.”

She herself is a fan of dense, multilayered theater pieces such as the Robert Wilson-Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach, Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, and the Broadway revival of Cabaret starring Alan Cumming. “I have no trouble with dense and busy narratives that are not linear. I get lost in a world that may be very new to me, perhaps, and strange, where I feel off-balance, and I like that. I’m just hoping that many people will take the journey with me.”

She has come to accept that her initial assessment of Dogeaters was correct. “It is dense,” she acknowledged. “It’s not a minimal story. There are many, many, many layers of the story: the effect of religion and spirituality and faith. Violence, the love affair with violence. And carnality. Deep spirituality and deep carnality. A sense of melancholy pervades. And there’s this entertainment façade, show biz, everything’s all right, we’re going to smile through hell if we have to. But I think there’s a genuine joy, too, a sense that no matter what, even if my stomach’s growling, I’m going to dance. That’s what I want to leave people with at the end of the play. After all this, people still know how to live.”

New York Times, 2001