Monday ∗ 26 Dec 2011

the question of CareDivas*

Because CareDivas was one of those plays that everyone was raving about, that got TV exposure because celebrities sponsored whole shows, that was celebrated for being an original Pinoy comedy musical. Of course that it dealt with homosexuality must have had much to do with those raves, though as with anything and especially a stage production, there is more to this than just the fact of its subject matter.

And no, this isn’t me having high expectations of CareDivas at all. This is me still wondering a week hence: why was it relevant again that this story take place in Israel? Yes, the Middle Eastern country, and yes, it was obviously for the requisite additional layers of religious difference (between Catholicism and Judaism), and the language gap (between English/Filipino/gay lingo and Hebrew). Did I mention this is set in the context of a war, too?

Granted that this must be based on a real Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) experience. Granted that there would be Filipino gay OFWs in Israel, but it was the task of this play to reveal why exactly that space is important at all, and why it makes this story different. Because without Israel, in fact this narrative would stand. Without it, this would still be a story of the gay OFW experience, and it would still be funny and heartwarming, sad and wistful.

In fact, it was the task of this narrative to drive home this point: Israel is one of the few Middle Eastern countries where homosexuality is not illegal, and Tel Aviv is considered the gay capital of the Middle East.

That this wasn’t the premise of CareDivas, or maybe it was but it got lost in the pomp and pageantry and punch lines here, just made it an unwieldy narrative that was ultimately tiring. But that wasn’t just because Israel and Tel Aviv seemed irrelevant to most of the story. It was also because it slowly sunk in that this was reallynothing but the OFW experience turned bakla. It was nothing butkabaklaan in all its loud and proud glory as part of OFW living elsewhere.

Which, as I mentioned earlier, would’ve been good enough. Here is a set of five gay OFW stories, each one real and believable and pregnant with possibility. Here were actors who could’ve carried this show to kingdom come themselves, and the audience would’ve been happy with it. Yet the storytelling itself decides to cut some things short here, and possibilities disappear with nary an explanation, making things seem clumsily put together–if put together at all.

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Why, for example, was the choice made to have one OFW deported and not another, when both Kayla (Jerald Napoles) and Thalia (Jason Barcial) were in the same boat of being illegal migrants? This made even less sense given that Kayla’s characterization was more complete, not to mention better acted in (if not brilliantly acted in by Napoles). If the point was that they’d lose her voice too–literally–for their diva group, then that didn’t seem relevant at that point either, since the divas were already falling apart anyway.

In the same way that it was unclear why Shai (Vincent de Jesus) seemed to function in exactly the same as Jonie (Buddy Caramat) in that group. So much so that they could’ve been merged into just one gay character that was leader and elder, insecure about her status in the group, but confident in the fact that she’s one of two people holding the group together. The other being Chelsea (Roeder Camañag), the decent, level headed one, lucky with her employer, treating him as father and putting herself in the role of daughter.

Now as lead characters, it is understandable that Chelsea and Shai had the more developed stories here. But that can’t be an excuse for having minor characters functioning either as people to throw lines with, or worse, functioning only as stereotypes.

Because there is something to be said about the stereotypes that abound in CareDivas for both the OFW experience and kabaklaan. And while I have no complaints about dealing with stereotypes, or creating characters out of them, it does seem counterproductive at this point to not inject an amount of power in them, it seems old to keep them helpless illegal migrants. That is, why couldn’t have either of them chosen to just come home? Why could we not allow for that moment of leaving to be a powerful choice to make?

Meanwhile, the more powerful voices here were either killed off or just transferred elsewhere in the world–to New York in particular–where things are peaceful. At this point in the narrative though everything that was on that stage just didn’t seem to have reason for being: as fictional characters that might change our perceptions of the OFW experience, or as real images of kabaklaan as regular caregivers and as grand bongga drag performers. None of it made sense, none of them seemed to have taken control of their lives and made it bigger than where they were, and what that space made of them.

So maybe hopelessness was the point. And that would’ve been great in light of the darkness that forced the audience to listen in on a prolonged conversation among the gay friends, where their distances from each other remained bound by the fact of their friendship. So that was the point? Ah, but the point must be those laser lights they wanted to use to welcome us all to the finale: when the stage is filled again with the main protagonists, dead and deported and alive, and the rest of the cast, singing about hope and courage and laughter.

It was at this point that it became clear to me, what it was that was bugging me about the narrative the whole time: it looked and felt to me like moments and scenes were decided on first, and then tied together into the narrative that CareDivas became. Because there were those really funny conversations among the five friends, there were the grand production numbers, there were those beautiful original songs here, but they just didn’t tie as neatly together as they should have, over and above where they were happening.

Its great hope, other than its well-written songs, are its actors. And on the night that I saw CareDivas, it was really Camañag’s and De Jesus’ show. The latter had impeccable timing, knew comedy without the slapstick and the screaming, knew anger and drama that was equally touching and pained. And while his story was funniest with the voice of the mother in Manila rendering him helpless and insecure in his moments of failure, it was also in these moments of psychosis that De Jesus’ take on the painful struggles of homosexuality was practically magical.

But Camañag is a difficult presence to beat on that stage because he had exactly the right amount of femininity to see Chelsea through a story that was filled with screaming and loud gay friends. His voice was weak in the beginning but slowly found its way to an amount of confidence without being arrogant, and dance and movement that was consistent with the femininity Chelsea’s character required. But also there was the fact that Camañag had this OFW stereotype down pat: happy because thankful, lucky and loved, content by most counts.

And then kudos must be given to the rest of them actors who had to wear high heels and walk down that stage filled with ramps and steps that were unnecessary really, unless the point was for them to go through the death defying stunt of dancing and singing under such conditions. In fact, if that was the point, alongside the production numbers and the laughter, then CareDivas succeeds at giving us a good show.

But as a theater production? It’s difficult to get over the seeming carelessness with storytelling that’s here. In that sense, even CareDivas’ success can only carry with it many questions.

*This was written for and previously published in GMA News Online, December 26 2011.

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