The Public Theater’s production of “Dogeaters” may be the most prominent showcase of Filipino talent in New York since Lea Salonga was cast in the title role of “Miss Saigon. But the community of actors appearing in Jessica Hagedorn’s play didn’t spring up overnight. It has been cultivated in large part by the Ma-Yi Theatre Company, an Off-Off-Broadway theater specifically devoted to developing plays about the Filipino-American experience.

Founded in 1989 by six former students of the University of the Philippines, Ma-Yi has dedicated the current season, its 12th, to two plays by the widely admired 33-year-old playwright Han Ong, who in 1997 was the youngest artist (and the first Filipino-American) ever to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. The season opened in September with “Middle Finger,” Mr. Ong’s adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening.” A tough-minded portrait of the emotional and sexual torments facing two Filipino American boys in Catholic school, the play was directed by Loy Arcenas, who is best-known as an award-winning set designer. The cast included several gifted actors currently appearing in “Dogeaters” -- Ching Valdes-Aran, Mia Katigbak, and Jojo Gonzalez -- as well as a number of fine young actors, including Ramón de Ocampo, Orlando Pabotoy, and Michi Barall (who is not Filipino but half-Japanese). In May, Mr. Arcenas will direct Ms. Valdes-Aran in Mr. Ong’s new play, “The Watcher.” The coalescence of so much seasoned talent in one place has made Ma-Yi one of New York’s emerging theaters to watch.

Ma-Yi takes its name from the pre-colonial name for the Southeast Asian islands that the Spanish named the Philippines. The company has its origins in the political turmoil that swept the country in the final years of the Marcos dictatorship. “We developed a theater company called Godabil that used vaudeville expressionism as a way of doing street protests,” said Ralph Peña, who co-founded Ma-Yi and has served as artistic director since 1994. “We got to perform in huge rallies for a million people. It got to the point where the military started noticing our work.” Mr. Peña was called to the office of Army intelligence and questioned; three weeks later, at the urging of his parents, he left the country.

After finishing school at the University of California in Los Angeles, Mr. Peña landed in New York. By chance he reunited with some Godabil colleagues at a gay bar in Greenwich Village, with whom he commiserated about the difficulties of finding work in the theater as Asian-American actors. “I’d been working as an actor in New York and the regional theaters, mostly in American plays, or I’d be the token non-white in Shakespeare or Chekhov, if the director felt adventurous. I got cast as Chinese, and I played a Korean. You never get to play your own ethnicity. Filipinos especially feel that. That got tiring.” They decided to start their own company, inspired by the example of Tisa Chang’s Pan Asian Repertory, which itself evolved from Ellen Stewart’s embrace of international theater at La Mama ETC.

“At first we asked writers we knew from the Philippines to send us material and we translated it,” said Mr. Peña. “We quickly figured out that it didn’t have the same resonance for people living here and we needed to focus on Filipino-American writers if we could. There were only a handful of them. In the beginning it was strictly looking at the immigrant experience of Filipino Americans. Now, as with a lot Asian-Americans, the second wave of writers aren’t so focused on that particular story. If you look at Diana Son’s ‘Stop Kiss,’ there are no Asian markers in that play. We’re looking for plays that have more to say than ‘I came here and I got lost.’”

Like many idealistic young companies, Ma-Yi had its stumbles. After producing its first show for $1500 in the auditorium of Local 1199, the union for medical workers, they rented the Astor Place Theater for the next show and spent $30,000, which nearly capsized the company financially. Jorge Ortoll came on board in 1992 as executive director to provide economic stability. What really got the company on its feet was bringing in Mr. Arcenas to direct Mr. Peña’s play “Flipzoids” in 1996. Born in the Philippines and trained in London, Mr. Arcenas had become one of the busiest and most respected set designers Off Broadway, so when he launched his directing career at Ma-Yi, he made sure that colleagues at the Public Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York Theater Workshop, and other theaters came to see his work. “He created a buzz around the company among theater insiders,” Mr. Peña said, and this industry stature led to grants that helped the company sustain itself.

“To me, theater is about acting,” Mr. Arcenas said in a telephone interview. “The reason I started working with Ma-Yi was that when we were working on ‘Flipzoids,’ we had a difficult time casting the boy. From that time on, I decided that I would pay specific attention to Asian-American actors and see what it’s like to give them a chance to blossom. When we did ‘Middle Finger’ last year, the pool of interesting young actors had already widened by a big margin. It’s comforting to know, but also disheartening that they’re really given very few chances to take big roles. You don’t become Hamlet because you’re given the role. You have to build your stamina. You have to go through a lot of performances until you can be secure is such a lead role. People have to exercise the muscles.”

Ms. Valdes-Aran is exactly the kind of actor Mr. Arcenas is referring to. She has become one of the hardest working actors in New York. In the last year alone, she performed on Broadway in “The Wild Party,” in Central Park in “Julius Caesar,” and in the all-Asian production of “The House of Bernarda Alba” as well as “Middle Finger” and “Dogeaters.” But it’s been a long slow climb to this peak of employment. When she moved to New York from the Philippines in 1967, she worked as a dancer until 1980 and then tried to make her way as an actress. She was cast in David Henry Hwang’s “Sound and Beauty” at the Public Theater in 1983, but roles for Asian women were few and far between. She honed her craft working (mostly for free) in color-blind productions staged by such downtown directors as John Vaccaro, John Jesurun, and David Greenspan. With the advent of Ma-Yi and its sister company, the National Asian American Theater Company (NAATCO), she was able to undertake leading roles that really let her show her stuff.

In 1989 Mia Katigbak was also a frustrated, underemployed actress. With Richard Eng, she founded NAATCO to give Asian-American actors opportunities “to do the repertory we’re not allowed to -- European and American classics done straight,” she said. “When we’re cast out of tokenism, or we do it in a Chinese accent or Japanese accent, that perpetuates stereotypes.” The company hs mounted plays as disparate as “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” and William Finn’s “Falsettoland.”

A commitment to breaking cultural misconceptions and planting the seeds of cross-cultural understanding is what makes NAATCO and Ma-Yi sister companies. “We hold joint auditions sometimes and consult each other,” said Mr. Peña. “Ten years ago I could not cast a six-character Filipino-American play with all Filipinos. I like to think we had some small part in developing the talent pool because it has grown. And we have a core audience of people who have stayed with us as we slowly got riskier with the work. Every time, people say, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ I hope they keep saying that.”

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