Jana Lynne Umipig does not need words to tell stories. The actress, writer, and creator of The Journey of a Brown Girl, an experimental theater production, extends her vocabulary to her limbs. “Physical theater takes in mind, body, and spirit,” she says.
“You’re taught how to connect your physical self to everything else.”
The Journey of a Brown Girl puts a spotlight on women’s issues through the experience, culture, struggle, and history of Filipino women. There is no linear story, rather, it is told in vignettes built from personal accounts and interviews similar in style to The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, one of Umipig’s favorite writers. The piece originated in 2010 as a Umipig’s one woman show and capstone project while studying educational theater at New York University. Eventually, it became adapted for performance by a collective of Filipina performers. Journey is now in rehearsals for a rewritten version debuting at The Actor’s Fund Arts Center in downtown Brooklyn March 2014. The scenes are electric and the characters are unapologetically in-your-face. Umipig may not be an actress for this production but her vision and voice resonate.
“Right now, I will tell you this is not a play, this is a movement. I will say it over and over again, The Journey of a Brown Girl is a movement––a movement to tap into our greatest creators as Pinay women and what that really means,” she says.
Journey's five characters are named Earth, Fire, Wind, Light, and Water. Umipig’s writings were inspired by interviews with prominent Filipino women she admired. They ranged from Rocky Rivera, a rapper, to Alleluiua Panis, founder of non-profit Filipino tribal arts organization Kularts, to Allyson Tintiangco-Cubale, who spearheaded San Francisco’s Filipino education programs. Perla Daly, the founder of Pinay.com, inspired a monologue by the character called Fire.
Daly created the website as retaliation to discovering that “Filipina.com,” along with other similar domains, were mail-order bride sites, explicit pornography sources, and pages of women looking for “foreign pen pals, friends, and husbands.” In the production, a woman sits in front of a projector, while screenshots of web pages displaying exploited, sexualized Filipina women are scrolled through:
“I felt miserable at how these sites used ‘Filipina’ within their domains. These sites are disturbing for the following reasons–they exploit Filipina beauty and femininity for online profit; they idealize Filipina commoditization, commercialism and chauvinism; they further exploit women who are already economically and socially disadvantaged; and many market under aged womyn.”
While images of objectified Filipina women continue projecting, Fire’s mouth gets covered with a cloth. She struggles to remove it from her mouth and once it is forced off, she screams.
Umipig, a Honolulu native who also grew up in Stockton, California, says she was born an artist but never dabbled in theater until high school. A chance conversation with a teacher inspired her to audition for a Shakespeare class that led her to competitions doing scenes out of Shakespeare. She eventually enrolled in a conservatory at Cal State Fullerton for singing, dancing, and acting, but found the rigid structure limiting.
The beginnings of Journey started in Umipig’s new college UC Irvine, where she joined Kababayan, the Filipino student organization on campus. As a cultural coordinator, she was in charge of producing music and dance showcases and staging plays by Filipino writers. She would become president of the 1000-member club, but before that studied abroad in Italy for two months in Accademia dell’Arte to practice physical theater.
Like any other aspiring artist she soon landed in New York City. Around this time, Typhoon Ondoy devastated the Philippines. Umipig searched for a Filipino community to help with relief efforts and joined Damayan Migrant Workers Association, a grassroots organization of Filipino migrant workers. She joined Damayan at the start of her research for Journey. The most crucial players in the realization of Journey, however, were women she met at the Center for Babaylan Studies in San Francisco, an organization that seeks to preserve traditional Filipino indigenous and spiritual traditions. Umipig discovered the notion of kapwa, or the innate recognition and connection Filipinos feel with one another. The Babaylan women acted like mentors.
“Letecia [Leyson] was my kindred spirit because she was a mover. When I was distraught she’d ask me: when was the last time you danced? Or sang? Or created? It was these conversations I was having that were not only creating this art piece, but they were creating me,” she reflects.
“At the end of the day we live in New York City; we have to make a livelihood for ourselves, and I believe that everyone should be able to do work that feeds them everywhere: artistry, passion… food,” she says.
“I will spend every last penny that I have to feed this work.”
Umipig works full-time as a youth arts educator at the non-profit El Puente in Brooklyn. She teaches theater classes for beginners and advanced students, as well as mentors young artists individually. Meanwhile, she has been relentless with her fundraising efforts. She launched a campaign on Indiegogo and raised $6,134. Everyday, she updates Journey’s Facebook page with personalized notes of gratitude for individual donors.
The goal for Journey is for it to travel as a living, breathing work interpreted by multiple communities outside of Filipinos.
“These are all big dreams that I see feasible. They will happen. My god, these nine women will change the world.”