Kwentuhan, Part 1: Undressing the Fragments


“Storytelling is the most important part of any culture. It is the way we pass on our values, our dreams, our memories, our ancestry, our history, our herstory. It is a tool to keep our culture alive,” writes Renee Rises. She continues, “Every day a person tells a story. In every culture, in every country, we live our lives and we share stories daily. About our day, about our best friend, about our youth, about teaching, about creating art, about the closeness of our family, our struggles, our foods, our literature.... Stories live everywhere.”

It is precisely because of this - the undeniable power of storytelling - that UniPro launched the Kwentuhan initiative. Celebrating Filipino American History Month and the unique stories of our community, Kwentuhan promotes four different theatrical productions, all the original work of Filipinos in NYC, all showing through October and November 2014. The first of these shows is Renee’s Undressing the Fragments.

On Friday, October 24 at the WOW Cafe Theater in NYC, I attended the premiere of Undressing the Fragments, a non-linear theatrical production that delves into the lives of 14 characters in one act and 16 scenes. Although they are all Filipino American, Renee captures the diversity within our community by portraying the characters as very unique individuals; they experience different hardships and joys, they relate to their ancestral heritage in their own ways (if at all), and they have varying (and sometimes conflicting) values. On top of the struggles of trying to build lives of happiness and success, as members of the Invisible Minority navigating between (at least) two worlds, the characters must face the reality and helplessness of being oceans away from their motherland as it is ravaged by Super Typhoon Haiyan. Renee explains:

"Undressing the Fragments is a play that explores the diversity of the Filipina/o American community during the time of a natural disaster, during Typhoon Haiyan. It brings about various issues that impacted the community before, during and after the storm. While the play takes place during the most catastrophic typhoon to ever hit the Philippines, it explores issues that Filipina/os in America face as families, friends, educators, activists, soldiers, mothers, wives, brothers, sisters and humans. There isn't one issue it focuses on, it's many; hence-- fragments. There are so many pieces to our identity and I wanted to capture as many voices and lives as I possibly could in a small amount of time. I wrote the play while travelling in California from San Francisco, to LA, to San Diego, to Chicago and back to New York. I listened to many Filipina/os across the country and I listened deeply. I wrote with all of their stories in mind."

Undressing the Fragments Flyer

The play succeeds not only in engaging the audience in the characters' complex emotions, but also in challenging us with thoughtful, uncomfortable, and at times unanswerable questions. "What does it mean to be a Filipina/o in America?" states the show description. In this play, it means everything from college PCNs to playing with light-skinned dolls that contrast so starkly with your own skin color, and from superstitions to the ugliness of shame in your queer family member. This latter scene, when a young Pinoy reveals his sexual orientation to his much-respected Kuya, was an "Oh, shit" moment for me; suddenly my Filipino American-ness smacked me in the face and I found that I was fighting to keep myself together. Although it is not a scenario that I have experienced personally, the scene expressed so much about the respect, pride, and social acceptance that Filipino American families value so dearly, and which may also become a weight so heavy that it forces the family - the foundation of Filipino culture - to fall apart.

Just as meaningful as the play was the post-show talkback, when Renee and the actors conversed with the audience about what we had just seen. What surprised us? What affected us? We spoke about the significance of the spotlight highlighting the teen-aged Jessica, the youngest character in the play, who will share with other Filipino American youth the honor/burden of carrying forth and building upon our community's traditions, successes, and shortcomings. We spoke, of course, about Typhoon Haiyan, raising the same question we've all heard over and over again since last November: What can we do to help? Well, what CAN we do? We're here in the States, miles away from the land that many of us, perhaps, know very little about. Are we obligated to join relief and rebuilding efforts on the ground? Should we organize our own fundraising events? Where should we send the funds?

Of the many questions asked and thoughts shared during this discussion, Renee's poignant reflection on Haiyan resonated with me the most. She explained how the destruction of Hurricane Katrina had blown her away upon seeing it firsthand as a volunteer. To think that Haiyan's level of devastation was much worse, and that this time, she looked like the victims.... This inexplicable connection that she feels to Filipinos – kapwa – made an enormous sense of guilt and helplessness well within her for being in NY rather than in the Philippines. But as Undressing the Fragments actress Jana Lynne Umipig responded, yes, we ARE here. We must be fully present where we are, remembering the reasons why our families migrated here, and innovating ways to maximize our impact as a united community. True to life, Undressing the Fragments leaves the focus of that impact as yet to be determined.

As for the overall message Renee wants the audience to take away? “I want the audience to make decisions for themselves. The message? Filipinos are... unique. We're beautiful. We're diverse. We're complex. We struggle. We're brown. We're yellow. We're friends. We're enemies. We're artists. We're talented. We exist. We have dreams. We have hopes. Aspirations. We work together. We are solidarity. We struggle. We listen. We learn. We love. We are human.”

To read more from Renee Rises, check out her three-part story in The FilAm Magazine:

For more Kwentuhan, support our community’s artists and attend the rest of the shows, and return to our blog for exclusive interviews with the creators:

Lastly, to get involved in NYC community efforts to commemorate Typhoon Haiyan and discuss climate justice, attend the "Remembering Haiyan" community forum + vigil on Saturday, November 8, 2014.


Special thanks to Kirklyn Escondo for interviewing Renee!

Earthquake in the Visayas: How Fil-Ams can help out!

hc1I was in my final hours of my latest visit to Japan when I received news of the earthquake that struck the Visayas. I started off that trip at the city of Sendai in Tohoku, the region that took the brunt of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. As I watched the crowds clamoring for the latest game releases at the Tohoku Pokemon Center, I tried to picture what those kids must've experienced just a couple years earlier. Fast forward a couple days and the Tohoku quake came to mind again just as footage from Bohol and Cebu started trickling into CNN and NHK. But instead of imagining the victims I began to recall the heroes, the faces of those who - no matter how big or small their contributions were - answered in solidarity the calls of doing their part in the relief and rebuilding effort. As Filipino-American History Month draws to a close, let's end it strong by showing our own solidarity with our kababayan in Bohol and Cebu by helping them recover from the recent earthquake. Coming off the MNLF siege in Zamboanga that ended a couple weeks prior and Typhoon Santi which struck Luzon just days earlier, beleaguered relief groups need help more than ever and even the United Nations has made a call additional funds to help compliment existing efforts.

hc2So how can I help out?

You have two options. First is attending a local fundraiser! I'm currently compiling a master list of events from small towns to big cities across the US and I'm hoping to eventually expand this through any shout-outs from fellow Fil-Ams! Check these out:

New York City

November 1

November 3

Los Angeles

November 3

  • Catalyst Group, Blare Productions, Chryzwin Kreations, and Red Garage Productions will have Bayanihan III at Josephine's Bistro in Cerritos from 7 to 10PM.


November 5

  • FASA of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County will be hosting a Earthquake Relief Bake Sale from 11AM to 2PM at Commons Main Street.

And for those that want to have a more personal event with friends and family, why not try what Armand Frasco had in mind by inviting friends for a night of karaoke at your home and chip in some change as you sing in Karaoke for a Cause!


But what if there's no fundraising event nearby and I'd rather not have to go through another one of my tita's renditions of Dancing Queen?

Thankfully several groups both big and small are taking donations online!

We also have some Fil-Ams taking to crowdfunding sites! Here's a couple examples:

Unfortunately I missed out on some epic fundraisers by the time I compiled this list. However, I wish to share some of the spotlight to the likes of the Philippine Cultural Foundation of Tampa who hosted Operation Tulong at October 27, the Lomboc Association of California's GoFundMe campaign, and even a group up in the San Francisco Bay Area who hosted Zumba for a Cause! But hopefully there will be more to come! Who knows... maybe you might feel compelled to start one yourself!

Photos are courtesy of and used with permission from  Berniemack Arelláno of HabagatCentral, a sojourner based in Cebu who provided coverage of the earthquake's hard-hit areas. Check out his blog!