To hear him tell it, Ralph B. Peña “couldn’t get arrested” in 1989 while pounding the pavement in pursuit of an acting career. After many demoralizing and frustrating experiences — including an audition in which, despite Peña feeling good about his performance, the auditor turned her back on him — Peña and a group of other Filipino-American artists decided to take matters into their own hands and start the Ma-Yi Theater Company.
“We didn’t really know anything about doing it,” Peña told ALL ARTS. Within eight months, the founders were all in debt, which prompted them to bring on Jorge Ortoll, who straightened out the business side of the operation as the company mounted productions in church basements and union halls around the city.
Thirty years later, Peña serves as Producing Artistic Director of Ma-Yi and has taken the director’s chair on its latest production, “Felix Starro,” a new show that holds the perhaps-surprising marker of being the first musical created by Filipino-Americans to be presented off-Broadway.
“Felix Starro” tells the story of a famous Filipino faith healer (Felix Starro, played by Alan Ariano) who travels to San Francisco with his nephew, Junior (Nacho Tambunting). The duo attempts to launch a business out of their hotel room, in which Starro performs psychic surgeries — a Filipino healing tradition where the practitioner creates the illusion of performing surgery with his or her bare hands, employing fake blood and animal parts.
Based on a short story by Lysley Tenorio, the musical, written by Jessica Hagedorn and Fabian Obispo, and choreographed by Brandon Bieber (“Fosse/Verdon”), started as a workshop at American Conservatory Theater in 2014. Two years later, Ma-Yi committed to launching a full production in New York. “For a small theater like us, the real issue was whether or not we could raise the money,” Peña said. “That’s sort of why it took that long.”
Even though representation of Filipino-Americans on and off Broadway may still be lacking — both on stage and behind the scenes — the community in New York has grown. When asked about his experience of casting an all-Filipino company now compared to when Ma-Yi began, Peña said the pool of talent has expanded.
“I think this is partly generational with the Asian-American community — specifically also with the Filipino-American community — that second- and third-generation families now allow their kids to go into the arts, whereas first-generation families did not do that because we had to be doctors and engineers and all of that,” Peña explained. “But now that that’s happened, we’re getting a ton of Asian-American theater artists coming out of schools and grad schools and landing in New York.”
Peña believes that one of the reasons a production like “Felix Starro” is exceptional is because, “often, the plays that are chosen by most large regional theaters are exoticisized versions of Asian America. And rarely do we get to play our own ethnicities on stage.” He sees that the landscape of opportunities and representation has improved, but “I don’t know that we’ve sort of broken through all the barriers…So this ‘Felix Starro’ thing of Americans actually telling our story is huge.”
“You know, I always say that it’s the first Filipino-American off-Broadway musical. And in some ways we’re proud of that,” Peña said. “But it’s also a barbed reminder to feel that it’s a shameful fact that it’s the first.”
“Felix Starro” runs through Sept. 21 at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street.
Top Image: Nacho Tambunting, FranciscaMuñoz and Alan Ariano in "Felix Starro." Photo: Richard Termine.