Family dynamics often make for absorbing drama. But in “Middleton Heights,” which is having its world premiere at the Umbrella Stage Company in Concord beginning Friday, it’s an all-Filipino cast — a rarity in American theater — who tell the poignant story of the quest for the American Dream.
Hortense Gerardo’s play follows an Asian American Pacific Islander family across three generations, starting with two young doctors who leave their home country to practice medicine and raise their two children in suburban Cleveland. While the action never strays from the family home, the story spans more than 50 years, from the time of the Hough riots on the East Side of Cleveland in 1966 through the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a police officer in 2014. Those external pressures are always on the minds of the family, even as they squabble over expectations around education, careers, and marriage.
“Some of the scenes in the play existed as 10-minute plays that reflected my own experience as a Filipino American,” says Gerardo, “but I never considered putting them together since I was told a play with an all-Filipino cast was unproduceable.”
During the pandemic, however, Gerardo was one of several playwrights who participated in Umbrella Stage’s experiments in virtual theater.
“In an effort to avoid going completely silent, we produced short 30– to 40-minute plays written specifically for virtual platforms,” says director of performing arts Brian Boruta. “Hortense was part of that series, and her play ‘Incantation,’ about three friends who connect through a Zoom dinner party, was a great success.”
As theater companies everywhere considered post-pandemic programming, Boruta says he focused conversations on stories of identity, family, and connections.
“We gathered members of the audience, designers, directors, playwrights, and actors to consider what our season could look like,” he says. “We all agreed that local playwrights allowed us to remain in touch with our community when we couldn’t open the theater and we needed to make a space for a commission from a local playwright.”
“The commission validated my point of view,” says Gerardo. “I was shocked by the killing of Tamir Rice and researched the African American experience but realized I couldn’t write that story. I need to tell my own lived experience.”
Those initial 10-minute scenes provided a kind of scaffolding for “Middleton Heights,” she says. “The challenge was crafting a dramatic arc, and that evolved organically as we explored the tensions and connections between the generations.”
“I directed staged readings of two of Hortense’s 10-minute scenes,” says “Middleton Heights” director Michelle Aguillon, “and loved how honest these characters are, especially as they reflect her own roots. At the same time, the specificity of their culture and traditions makes them relatable, no matter who you are or where you are from.”
Gerardo says she wasn’t interested in a traditional “kitchen sink” drama, especially not a drama with a neat resolution.
“There are some things that are intentionally ambiguous and unresolved,” she says. “The play can be staged with the scenes moving chronologically, as this production does, or simultaneously. The most potent moments can happen in those spaces in between the words, in the silences and in what is not said. I like letting the audience come to their own conclusions and interpretations.”
Aguillon said the fun of watching the play evolve came from the contributions of the all-Filipino cast.
“Across the islands there are many different languages, dialects, phrases, and each have their own cultural nuances,” she says. “We learned how different we all are even in the Philippines, and how, even as we respect those differences, we always need to steer it back to Hortense’s roots.”
While Tagalog and Ilocano words and references are made in the script, Aguillon says they are woven into the conversations and the characters.
“The story is driven by these family members,” she says. “The specifics of their experience may be new to audiences, but their love, their pain, and their struggles are universal.”
Confronting the caste system
The Stage Ensemble Theater Unit, which uses theater to build bridges between Indian and Western cultures, marks its 20th year with three plays at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown Friday through Sunday.
The trio of plays explore the “Evils of Casteism” in the nonprofit’s effort to shed light on the discriminatory practice that continues today in India. “Kanyadaan” (“Giving the Daughter Away”), by Vijay Tendulkar, portrays the conflict between an upper-class family and their Dalit son-in-law in 1980s India; Munshi Premchand’s “Sadgati” (“The Salvation”), scripted by SETU founder and director Subrata Das, based on the translation of TC Ghai, is a tragic story about a low-caste village family and a Brahmin couple in 1930s India; and “Mini Love,” by Das and Nilay Mukherjee based on Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie,” depicts the love between a prostitute and an upper-class Jat in modern India.
Thirty actors appear in the plays, which will be presented together at each of the four performances. General admission tickets are $25 at www.setu.us or www.mosesianarts.org. A free panel discussion on the Indian caste system will follow the Saturday matinee at 5:30 p.m.
At Umbrella Stage Company, 40 Stow St., Concord. March 31-April 23. $20-$45. 978-371-0820, ext. 204, theumbrellaarts.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com
Terry Byrne can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.