.Labor Legacy Honored in Filipino-American Play

‘Larry the Musical’ amplifies the voices of Filipino farm workers at Brava for Women in the Arts

In its nearly 40-year history, Brava for Women in the Arts has never before met a more perfect match than with Larry the Musical. The San Francisco-based arts organization is devoted to amplifying the stories and voices of women, LGBTQIA and underrepresented people of color. 

Their latest staged production is based on the children’s picture book, Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, written by the late historian Dawn Mabalon and author/playwright Gayle Romasanta, and illustrated by Andre Sibayan. The musical tells the story of Itliong, the oft-overlooked labor organizer who led protests for equal pay and dignified living conditions for farm and cannery workers throughout the West Coast and Alaska, from the 1930s to when United Farm Workers was created in 1966.

For most people, Cesar Chavez’s life and legacy—and that of UFW co-founder and labor activist Dolores Huerta—overshadowed Itliong, the organization’s assistant director. Seldom taught in school curricula or known to the general public, Itliong donned the mantle of his Filipino-American identity and held a prominent role as a leader in the Filipino community.

Beginning his crusades at the age of 15, he only posthumously gained recognition: honored in Labor International’s Hall of Fame, and with the proclamation of Oct. 25 as “Larry Itliong Day,” by the state of California in 2015.

Reflecting an ongoing and equal commitment to authentic representation and dignified labor policies, Brava’s Larry the Musical is a 100% Filipino-American production with a cast and crew of primarily union employees. The cast is led by Eymard Meneses Cabling (Elder Larry), Joshua Carandang (Larry), Bebe Browning (Rayna/Mom) and Jocelyn “Jojo” Thompson-Jordan (Dawn), along with others.

Funded largely by private investors, grants from the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) for workshop and development, and a small fundraising campaign launched to ensure fair payment, the creative team includes director/choreographer Billy Bustamante, Writer/Executive Producer Gayle Romasanta, co-Music Directors/Composers Bryan Pangilinan and Sean Kana, and co-lyricists Romasanta, Pangilinan, Kana and Kevin Camia. Lighting designer Danielle M. Ferguson, production designer Ciriaco Sayoc, sound designer Elliott Orr, Projection Designer Joan Osato and Wardrobe Supervisor Misty Ty round out the top leadership positions.

Born in the Philippines on Oct. 25, 1913, Itliong immigrated to the United States in 1929 with hopes of becoming a lawyer, but instead worked as a farm laborer. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he became a U.S. citizen, and in 1954 he moved to Stockton’s Little Manila, where he organized for the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee.

Between the 1930s and early ’60s, Itliong established a reputation as a fierce political union strategist and is best known for his leadership role in the 1965 Delano Grape Strike. The partnership between AWOC and the National Farm Workers Association resulted in the historic five-year strike that won better pay and benefits for agricultural workers.

AWOC and NFWA merged in 1966 to become United Farm Workers, with Chávez as director and Itliong as assistant director. Even after departing the organization, Itliong continued to work for Filipino Americans until he died in 1977 at age 63.

All of this explains the lead characters featured in the musical. But the character of “Dawn” may surprise people unfamiliar with Dawn Mabalon’s equally spectacular achievements and dedication to raising the visibility of Filipino-American history and culture.

A third-generation Pinay, Mabalon was born in Stockton in 1972. An associate professor with tenure in the department of history at San Francisco State University, she is believed to be the first Pinay to earn a doctorate in American history from Stanford University. Her dissertation became Little Manila is in the Heart, an award-winning book published by Duke University Press.

Mabalon co-founded the Little Manila Foundation and served as the national scholar on the Filipino American National Historical Society Board of Trustees. She died in August 2018, one week before her 46th birthday.

In an interview, San Leandro-based actor Thompson-Jordan said she first learned about Itliong while the musical was being workshopped at Brava. 

“Being mixed race—Black and Filipino—I didn’t know if I was allowed to audition, and said ‘No,’” Thompson-Jordan said. “Everyone told me it was OK. But even later, self-doubt kept its hold on me. It’s common for mixed-race people to not feel like enough on any spectrum.”

She continued, “I wasn’t Black enough; wasn’t Filipino enough. America has the ideal belief of being ‘a melting pot.’ But within that, people put up barriers and boundaries to protect themselves or to hold onto the culture they came from. If you didn’t fit exactly into a box, you were alienated. It continues to happen. People still gate-keep Blackness and what is being Filipino.”

Fortunately, Thompson-Jordan found the cast and crew cared less about her having 100% Filipino bloodline purity than about Itliong’s story and sharing the production’s themes that touch on love, family, traditions, carrying the torch and making sure people know Filipino history.

To prepare for her role, Thompson-Jordan spoke to close friends of Mabolon who shared stories of her passion for Filipino history and commitment to rectifying its erasure.

“My goal in portraying her was and is to get the essence of who she was and not try to be an imitation,” Thompson-Jordan said. “I think of Dawn wearing a spiritual, ancestral backpack everywhere she went.

“I’ve been doing a process of ‘putting on my backpack of the ancestors’ before I go onstage,” she added. “I like to think I’m performing this play not just for her and our Filipino ancestors, but with them.”

The sense of family and close bonds within the cast bolstered her confidence as a queer, mixed-race person whose soul connections to her roots and identity she admitted were lacking.

“The connections in my ethnicity gradually made sense, and I found healing in the parallels between Filipino and Black culture,” Thompson-Jordan said. “Both people in hardships choose joy, make creative things happen, have humor and find strength in community.”

A scene near the play’s conclusion about regret, loss and grief was the most difficult to tackle. Preparing for its emotional arc forced her to address an “ugly demon” she realized was holding her back.

“I had to heal, and I’m now in the posture of receiving whatever is out there without fear or the feeling I don’t deserve it,” Thompson-Jordan said. “I get to live the moment, care more for others, do good things.”

Thompson-Jordan’s grandmother immigrated when she was 13 years old in an era when assimilating meant learning and speaking primarily English and identifying—regardless of how improbable and inauthentic it might be—not as Black or Filipino, but as American.

“My people, we’ve been waiting in the shadows,” Thompson-Jordan said, “and now, doing this musical for my family, Dawn’s family and sold-out houses filled with many brown people, I feel proud and hella Filipino. Inside, I’m rooting for all of us, honoring Dawn and waving a huge-ass Filipino flag.”

For tickets or more info visit brava.org/all-events/larrythemusical.

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