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Frame of Reference

Playwrights’ Corner
A point of view looking up at the tops of palm trees against a blue sky.

I sat across from my brother and his partner, pushing the leftover food on my plate around with a fork; the sound of metal scraping porcelain joining the laughter coming from my mother and sister. My mom was telling a story- an anecdote that has no doubt been told over and over again within our family. My brother leans towards his partner and whispers in their ear as he has done the entire meal. “’Tita’ means ‘aunt,’” I overhear him say. “She’s talking about my Aunt Michelle.” My brother had been taking the time to explain our conversation, hoping his partner, who is white, wouldn’t feel left out. He was mostly translating words that would slip through our English due to the rapidity of the conversation, but I realized there were other things that would need to be explained for my brother’s partner to truly feel included.

They grew up in a suburb outside Baltimore, while we spent our childhood in a then-growing city in the Philippines. Beyond language, there were other barriers between us. We had a different frame of reference.

This issue always seems to pop up whenever I talk to my friends or colleagues about theater and it nags at me. It nags at me whenever I see a show or read a play and respond with “I didn’t get it.” It nags at me whenever I’m working on my own writing and stop to ask myself “but will the audience get it?” I can feel this question looming over my head like the guillotine, ready to cut me off when I’m ready to share my thoughts or when I’m riding a wave of inspiration. And the question that continues to plague me is: can a single piece of art be truly universal?

The way we see things is informed by our own experiences and that cannot be more true when it comes to our art - the way we write, perform, respond as an audience member. We laugh when a joke rings true to us, we cry when we’re taken back to a specific moment in our own memory bank, we get angry when we understand a character’s frustrations. But what happens when you feign laughter while everyone else tries to catch their breath or when you sit there silently as everyone else wipes their cheeks dry or when you find yourself confused watching an actor passionately yelling at their scene partner?

In college, I picked up A. Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things And Hit Them not expecting it to stir something inside me. I didn’t realize how many plays I’ve read that haven’t spoken to my culture until I read Edith and wholly identified with the character of Kenny, but there was one moment in particular that stuck with me on my first reading.

I was sitting on my bed anxiously waiting for my roommate to finish reading the script despite her insistence that I was creeping her out.

“It was good,” she said, flipping the last page. 

“Okay. But what about the mongo?”

“What? It was a good story. It’s pretty relatable in terms of a coming-of-age story.”

“Right. Right. But what about the mongo?”

My roommate looked at me like I’d lost my mind. To clarify, mongo is a type of bean that is often used in Filipino cuisine as a side dish or an ingredient for stew. One of the characters made a quick, passing reference to it in the play, but for some reason, this one instance really stayed with me. Despite my roommate’s excitement to talk to me about the play, I felt myself getting deflated. Disappointed, I hung my head and started pulling on the blanket draped over me. How could I talk to her about these characters when she missed something that felt so obvious to me? I felt frustrated, but soon I felt foolish. I felt stupid for getting excited over a small reference to food. I felt stupid to think that my roommate’s understanding of an 89-paged play depended on this singular moment. I looked up and saw my roommate, having realized the shift in mood, patiently waiting for me to say something. I realized I could either continue to sulk or explain to her why it meant so much to me. I told her about mongo and my grandmother’s cooking while she sat and laughed at my stories. We spent the rest of the evening talking about the play—how Kenny faced the terrors of high school and taking care of his younger sister all the while surrendering to his first love, which led to conversations about our own time as pimply-faced teenagers. We talked until our words were mumbled, swallowed by sleep.

To this day, I still think about that conversation and my own thoughts about “universality.” We both found something in common with the play—a story about growing up— and even found something in common with each other. Now, I wouldn’t say that our conversation wasn’t meaningful, but I am always hesitant to consider the play universal, because doing so feels like I’m neglecting the aspects that speak to my own cultural identity. And I feel the same about other plays with characters who don’t share the same identifiers as me. I fear that whenever I try to relate to those plays on a general level, it diminishes its impact on somebody else. I understand we have to find commonalities with one another and we can only relate in certain ways, but that doesn’t make it less frustrating to sometimes have to explain yourself over and over again.

When we got back to school, I spent an entire semester organizing a staged reading of Edith hoping to share the story and the work of an Asian American playwright with my peers. My heart dropped when I looked out into the audience on the night of the performance. It was an audience made up almost exclusively of my white classmates. When the time came for a talkback, I felt my stomach tighten even more when it became a one-sided conversation. The audience was hesitant to participate. They nodded along and listened, but only a few spoke. Yes, it was incredibly freeing and not to mention a rare opportunity for me to share my frustrations about the lack of representation of Asian American narratives, but I realized that wasn’t the main driving force of why I had put so much work into the reading. I realized I had done it because I so badly wanted to make a deeper connection with someone—anyone.

After the event, I mingled around the room feeling discouraged. Out of nowhere, a Filipino schoolmate, one of only a handful, came up to me to tell me how much she enjoyed the performance. I looked at her, caught off guard, not having realized she was there, and smiled. I didn’t know what to say at first, but one question escaped my lips before I could even catch myself.

“Did you catch the part about the mongo?” I asked her eagerly.

She responded with a massive grin. Despite being in a room full of people, we chuckled to each other like we were sharing an inside joke.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2017 edition of "A Bird's Eye View," The Lark's Monthly Newsletter. Sign up for our mailing list to get Lark news and more stories like this one straight to your inbox!