Jana-Lynne Umipig

Discovering My Story in 'The Journey of a Brown Girl'


I made my way up several flights of stairs, where I was greeted and asked to choose a small stone from a bowl before entering the performance space. Each audience member did the same, and wrote a word or their name on their stones - I elected to scribble down the word “love” in Arabic. We placed them on the altar, located on stage right, and took our seats.

Jana Lynne “JL” Umipig, the director, creator and producer of The Journey of a Brown Girl, explained to the audience that the stones were meant to absorb the positive energy from the show, and that we were free to retrieve our stones at the conclusion of the night’s event.

The energy that flowed through WOW Café Theater that evening was beyond positive. It was also a mix of wonder, anger and passion; wonder – for many of the issues that the piece as a whole raised, all of which sparked curiosity and reflection among the audience; anger – for the many misfortunes and atrocities that fellow Pilipina women have had to endure throughout the course of history; and passion – for the intense level of emotion that each the five characters evoked during the performance.

The Journey of a Brown Girl did not follow a particular storyline. Instead, it was a collective; it was an exploration of Pilipina issues and experiences through varying lenses. Following the opening ritual, the five women gathered for “Ina sa Anak na Babae (Mother to Daughters).” Light, played by Precious Sipin, was the mother figure of the four other elements. Her four daughters were Wind (Renee Rises), Water (Leslie Hubilla), Fire (Vanessa Ramalho) and Earth (Karen Pangantihon). Each of the women in the show used a malong throughout the performance. The malong is defined by Umipig as “a life cloth.” Umipig describes the malongs as garments that:

“… become an extension of the spirits of the wom*n and are used throughout to help them transform into characters and to give to the stories of all the sisters, mothers, wom*n, and girls whose voices fill the piece… From cradle to grave, this is how the malong serves the Maranao. The malong is a tube-like, unisex garment that also symbolizes the Maranao’s artform and culture.”

In a commentary on the Catholic Church, poignantly referred to as “Sit, Stand, Kneel,” Light knelt on stage right, deep in prayer. As they sat, stood, and knelt non-stop, the four daughters began to itch with frustration. They recognized that they had been conditioned to abide by the expectations of the church, regardless of their understanding of faith and spirituality.

“I know Him, but I know the hymn by heart,” one of the daughters stated with discontent.


The wide disconnect between the church and women’s issues as a whole is still evident today. Change, though slow, requires arduous effort. Just this past week in the Philippines, the Supreme Court passed the RH bill, which previously faced much opposition by the Roman Catholic Church.

“The Reproductive Health Law is a historic step forward for all women in the Philippines, empowering them to make their own decisions about their health and families and participate more fully and equally in their society,” states Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. Still the church continues to clash with women’s rights, especially in the Philippines and among Catholic women of the Pilipino diaspora.

The performance also presented the modern Pilipina woman as an individual that is often overlooked in society. The performers took turns telling the accounts of OFWs who have become domestic workers after leaving the PI. These portraits explained the trials that domestic workers are subjected to, including receiving little or no pay, enduring physical and sexual abuse, and experiencing the inability to break contract and leave their employer. The piece went on to portray trafficked Pilipinas who have been deceived by recruitment agencies or individuals and forced into sex slavery abroad. The performers took on a different persona, reflective of the women whose stories they were telling. They took turns recounting several interviews and recollections over candlelight. Hearing these chilling tales brought tears to many in the audience, myself included.

The latter half of the piece explored the perception of beauty among Pilipina women. Light encouraged her four daughters to make their skin white by smearing thick layers of lightening cream upon their faces. Watching the women cover up their brown skin was comical at first; they appeared to buy into the acceptable perceptions of beauty (according to their mother and society). Eventually, each of the daughters realized that they were hiding their true selves, and began to wash away their masks.



All I could think of during the performance was how much I understood each of the daughters - and even the mother. The performers portrayed Pilipina women as victims of circumstance. Those circumstances ranged from religious faith and spirituality to colonialism and globalization. However, each of the women also portrayed strength, perseverance and resilience.

After the show, I approached Umipig, and thanked her for such a moving experience.

“It was like you were telling my story,” I admitted to Umipig.

“That’s because it is your story,” she assured me.


Photo credits: Chauncey Velasco

Filipino Arts Renaissance: Jana Lynne Umipig


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.

Umipig does not romanticize the “starving artist” cliché.

“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.”

Donate to The Journey of a Brown Girl here.

Photo Credit: Gecile Fojas, Sachi Villareal

The Journey of a Brown Girl Community Launch Party


The Journey of a Brown Girl's launch party on November 15 brought attendees to The Living Gallery in Brooklyn, a cozy space just waiting to be christened with community. The walls were decorated by original creations by Journey's own team members and performers, including Vanessa Ramalho's handmade scarves, apparel by Inez Galvez, the iconic Journey painting, and even live art created on site by Karoleen DeCastro. Aside from fundraising for the production itself, 15% of proceeds from donations would benefit Sagip-Tulong sa Pilipinas (STP)'s relief funds for those affected by Typhoon Haiyan. The four actresses, Vanessa Ramalho (Fire), Karen Pangantihon (Earth), Renee Rises (Wind), and Precious Sipin (Light/Mother) opened the show, along with a piece from the show's creator Jana Lynne Umipig. The night was akin to an intimate family gathering, including familiar faces from Tagalogue, with an abundance of drinks and people, packed in to the point where some were sitting on the floor. A wide range of acts went on, including those by Chris Celiz, Andre Dimapilis, Nicole Maxali, Renee Rises and Luis Guillien, Deep Foundation, and Hydroponikz. Spoken word, stand up comedy, beatboxing, rap, and song were all part of the lively mix–a testament to the growing Filipino Arts Renaissance. The center of the room played a stage, and the absence of boundaries allowed the vibrant audience and artists alike to absorb one another's talents and messages.

Learn more about The Journey of a Brown Girl's message at thejourneyofabrowngirl.com. Keep posted for its debut in Spring 2014.

Photo credit: Kristina Rodulfo

"Tagalogue" and the Filipino Arts Renaissance


The second showing of "Tagalogue Vol 3: Within Us A Tribute to Our Ancestors" had attendees walking up a narrow staircase into a dimly lit, small white room packed with people shoulder to shoulder, and barely any distance between the performers and the front row. It was intimate. As the night commenced I soon realized the proximity mimicked the material. With every personal story of history, struggle, and identity, heads from the audience nodded in recognition like a silent chorus of "me too"s. There was no question: "Tagalogue" was going to hit home, and whether you knew it or not, sitting there made you a partner of its prose.

History certainly loomed overhead with each story. But, even if the performers were years removed from their tale their words felt immediate, stinging like fresh wounds. There was loss: Larry Tantay wrote "Mary Lou Tantay," a beautiful piece on the last days with his mother, played impeccably by Renee Rises, who succumbed to cancer. There was connection: Jana-Lynne Umipig's excerpt from her original work "Journey of a Brown Girl" summoned women of Philippine past to the present. There was conflict: J. Gabriel Tungol's "Another One of These Type Dudes" raised questions of authenticity in Fil-Am identityThere was even humor: RJ Mendoza's "My Main Man" had everyone guffawing over his endearing relationship with his lolo. In every performance, there was love. There was the 14-person cast's love for their craft, love for each other, and from every corner of the room–a love for our culture's past.

After the show there was a talk-back with the cast and directors, Andre Ignacio Dimapilis and Precious Sipin, and they took questions from the audience about their piece. In the same space, there were experienced Broadway performers, and others were first-time actors. At one point, Andre announced:

"We are experiencing a Filipino arts renaissance!" and I immediately wrote the phrase down. The words resonated in the room: Filipino. Arts. Renaissance. Up to now, it's nothing new that the Pilipino population is abundantly blessed with singers, dancers, and writers, but seeing a Pilipino artist in the performing arts was always an exception (think of the national worship over Lea Salonga). "Tagalogue" introduced a time for change, and now I'm looking forward to seeing a rise of productions for and by our community.

The Pilipino/Fil-Am experience has yet to be in the public spotlight, but if that small white room was any indication of what's to come... we're definitely getting closer.

Photo: Kristina Rodulfo