filipino arts renaissance

Love, Family, and Alzheimer’s; Kwentuhan Part 3: Forgetting the Details

This past October, in honor of Filipino American History Month, we began to promote the stories of our community through an initiative called Kwentuhan. But storytelling shouldn’t end once it’s November 1st. Actor and writer Nicole Maxali shares:

“When I first started acting at the age of fifteen, the only Filipino actress I could look up to was Lea Salonga.   And in college, I remember that a college professor wouldn’t let me do my final paper on Asian American actors because, she stated, “There aren’t any to write about!” So much has changed since then. But we still lack positive representation in American TV and Films. Since I began writing and performing as a solo performer/storyteller, my intention is to inspire other Fil-Ams, Filipinos and women of color that our stories are worth writing, performing and watching.

“As Filipinos, it’s not just important to be nurses but to be artists as well. It’s equally important to write and share our stories! I learned years ago that waiting around for Hollywood to write and cast me in a positive Filipino American narrative film was just as fruitless as waiting around for a winning lotto ticket to fall into my lap.

“If I wanted change, I’d have to create it myself! We Filipinos are a hardworking and resourceful people. Just take a look at the first wave of Manongs that immigrated to Hawaii and Delano, California. For decades we have been making our dreams come true in this country, so performing this show to sold out houses and receiving rave reviews proves that we can continue to do so.”

Forgetting the Details banner

The show Nicole describes is Forgetting the Details, a critically acclaimed tale of a woman torn between tradition and ambition, struggling between her Filipino roots and the American dream. At a recent encore of this one-woman show, an audience gathered to witness Nicole’s talents and to experience the journey of that woman, her father, and her grandmother as they navigate their strained relationships with one another in contemporary San Francisco. Nicole elaborates, “Forgetting the Details has themes that explore a young woman’s Coming of Age, Change versus tradition, Facing Reality, Loss, and Family. The show tells my story of being raised in San Francisco by my traditional Filipino grandmother, yet influenced by my free-spirited father, and the struggles we face as a family when my grandma is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It's a powerful story that reaches beyond the Filipino American context and touches upon powerful elements of the human experience.

I had the privilege of being part of that live audience at the cozy 13th Street Repertory in downtown New York, entering with few expectations and leaving floored by the show. Contrary to the show’s title, it seems that no detail is forgotten when it comes to describing the play’s unique characters. Manifesting her unique characters’ complexity through their actions and interactions with one another, Nicole develops her characters with such detail that the show seems set apart from others. As the play goes on, the characters reveal more and more while pulling the audience deeper and deeper into Nicole’s memories. For example, not many can sympathize with Nicole’s father, presented initially as a drugged-up dropout, cast aside by the family in favor of his brother, a college graduate and Navy sailor. We learn later that he, like his daughter, is an artist. He is a dreamer with a childlike wonder, lost in his music and painting, and seeking the acceptance from his daughter that he never gained from the rest of his family.

Forgetting the Details trailer

View the Forgetting the Details trailer.

True to life, Nicole’s characters also display a wide range of emotions as they embark on journeys of transformation throughout the course of the play. The characters express depth and complexity during every interaction, each moment strung into a chain of poignant and real memories. For example, while Nicole was once ashamed of her grandmother’s brazen personality, she learns to appreciate her grandmother’s wit and sage advice, adoring her as they grow older.

Similarly, the show itself has come a long way since its inception eight years ago. Nicole explains:

“I started writing this piece in 2006 during a solo performance workshop I was taking taught by W. Kamau Bell (Host of the FX show “Totally Biased”). During that year, my grandma was diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  It was a difficult time for my family and for me, especially since my grandma provided unconditional love and stability during my formative years.  So I chose to write about it in Kamau’s workshop. Writing was my coping mechanism--a positive outlet for the pain. After our class final, Kamau told me that it was some of the best writing he has ever seen me perform.

“The piece evolved as I performed it in venues around San Francisco. Soon people began approaching me, sharing their own stories about loved ones with Alzheimer’s. They related to this story in a special way due to their experiences with Alzheimer’s. I realized that my show had become something more than just a source of healing for me. It was a way for people to connect to a piece that was both real and funny. And it spoke to their own issues of caregiving, guilt, shame, mental health, and family dynamics. My desire to add to healing and light in an otherwise dark and painful world of Alzheimer’s disease was my source of inspiration.

“The first time I performed the full-length version was November 2011…just four months after a close family member passed away. It was a very challenging time for me but I continued with the West Coast premiere of my show at Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco and sold out most of my shows and received rave reviews and standing ovations.

“Since 2011, it’s become a tighter and stronger show. Originally 100 minutes, I have since then cut it down to a 75-80 minute show. I’ve also injected more humor to it. My background is also stand-up and improvisational comedy.  So performing this show for the past three years in different cities around America (Boston, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, etc.) has led me to find new jokes within the show. And working with my director, Paul Stein, for the past four years has definitely shaped the show to what it is today.”

Forgetting the Details 1

Her grandmother’s declining health becomes a focal point in the play, as her sickness becomes a burden for Nicole and her father. Not every father-daughter relationship runs smoothly, and their relationship is no exception. Both characters struggle between their dreams and their responsibilities, often delving too deep into their trade while familial obligations come second. However, the further and further Nicole distances herself from her father as time goes on, the closer and closer her father comes to returning to her life, especially as a result of her grandmother’s illness. The importance of their relationship eventually climaxes during her father’s death, when Nicole discovers just how proud her father was of her from the newspaper clippings he saved about her, even during years of separation.

Forgetting the Details is simply a play I will not forget. Nicole states:

I want the audience to walk away with a greater appreciation of their lolas, parents, family, and the loved ones around them. Life in general can be stressful and all consuming. But when we take a step back and appreciate the people in our lives that have shaped who we are, it allows us to slow down and take stock of how much we’ve accomplished with their help. Alzheimer ’s disease in general has taught me to stay present and appreciate the people in my life that love and support me. So go call your lola and lolo right now and tell them ‘Mahal kita’!

“Specifically for Fil-Ams, my show touches on the conflict of being a good traditional Filipino granddaughter versus a third generational Fil-Am with her own American dreams. Most Caucasian Americans don’t fully understand the pressure we face in Asian families of being the model daughter/son or granddaughter/grandson. And the pressures we face to take care of our elders as we get older and having our families remain our top priority. It is difficult to find that balance and especially hard to manage the internal guilt we feel if we pick our own happiness or career over our parents’ wishes.”

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I, too, had a grandmother who passed away from various complications, a difficult time when my parents also separated. Audience members will feel as if Nicole is telling their stories, and not only hers. Forgetting the Details is more than a tale of a daughter and her grandmother, told with laughter and drama and everything in between; it’s an invitation to Nicole’s dinner table, her heart, her memories, her story as a Filipina American, and her own human experience.

For more Kwentuhan, read our reviews and exclusive interviews for Renee Rises’ Undressing the Fragments and Carlos Celdran’s Livin’ La Vida Imelda. Interested in storytelling within the Filipino American community? Contact us:

Kwentuhan Continues: Livin' La Vida Imelda

What is it about Imelda Marcos that has captured the minds of artists lately? Last year, we couldn’t avoid the posters for Here Lies Love, plastered all over New York City; Imelda’s face was thrown back, microphone in hand, the neon sleeves of her Maria Clara gown punctuating the ad for the show at the Public Theater. Word-of-mouth described it as more of a nightclub than a show. It was immersive, a trendy theatrical buzzword, and had music by Fatboy Slim and David Byrne. There were rave reviews, packed houses, and a demand to bring the show back after its initial limited run concluded. For a while, this slice of Filipino history was the hottest ticket in town. But with Imelda Marcos as the twinkling stage diva-du-jour, did Here Lies Love deliver a more glamorized version of her rise to political power than Filipinos recall? This month, we see a new take on the controversial first lady. Livin’ La Vida Imelda, directed by Ralph B. Peña, premiered as part of Ma-Yi Theatre’s current season with creator and star Carlos Celdran at its helm. Mr. Celdran shows a less glorified version of Imelda Marcos than the lovesick heroine of Here Lies Love. Rather than dramatizing her life for the stage, Celdran aims, instead, for complexity.

Carlos Celdran's Livin' La Vida Imelda

In fact, the show is based far more in activism, heritage and history, than it is in traditional theatrics. Livin’ La Vida Imelda didn’t start the way most plays start, with workshops or table readings and maybe a small production beneath a proscenium. Instead, it began on the streets of Manila.

Celdran had been leading walking tours of Manila with Walk This Way, a company he founded. A number of routes were offered, which all introduced tourists to major sites around the city. But Celdran’s skills as a performer became the real attraction. Eventually his unique blend of tour guiding, meets musical theater, meets clowning, turned each tour into its own show. His tours became more solidified and scripted. He developed a rhythm and audiences grew.

Livin’ La Vida Imelda began as one of these tours. Celdran led groups past major Marcosian sites in a presentation he referred to as, “ironically irreverent yet informative.” Instead of the disco-dancing woman known outside the Philippines mostly for her shoe collection, Carlos Celdran winded from site to site, stood on the ground Imelda had walked upon and broke down the Marcos mythos. In 2012, The New York Times called the piece, “a delicious mix of history, gossip and social commentary.”

Soon, Ma-Yi Theater’s Executive Director Jorge Ortell took notice of Celdran and had the vision to bring the tour to New York stages.

“I watched the Manila version over two years ago and right away thought this would be very appropriate for NYC,” said Jorge Ortoll, Executive Director of Ma-Yi Theater Company. “I spoke with Carlos, who was willing to make cuts and revise the script to make it more resonant to non-Filipino ears, as our audience is not only Filipino-American, but also non-Filipino Asians and non-Asians.”

How exactly did a walking tour turn into a stage show? Ma-Yi’s expertise paired with Celdran’s vision and storytelling certainly bode well for the future of Livin’ La Vida Imelda and we have high hopes for the production.

As Ortoll explained, “Artistic Director Ralph Peña directs the Ma-Yi version and he and Carlos culled it from a 2.5 hour script to 90 minutes. It's tighter, more cohesive and moves at a very rapid pace. We've also added an actual set, projections and multiple lighting and sound cues, to make it a true theatrical piece.”

Livin' La Vida Imelda

That said, the team also has the burden of sharing a darker time in Filipino history with New Yorkers-- folks who likely only know Imelda Marcos from bubblegum subway ads or a thumping Fatboy Slim beat. That responsibility isn’t lost on Celdran or the team at Ma-Yi.

“One has to be at least 40-years-old to remember what the Marcos regime was like,” says Ortoll. “It set the tone for unbridled plunder and disrespect of human rights and freedom of speech. The regimes following Marcos all took his example as license to do the same and even more. How and why this happened is an important history lesson to anyone of any age and any nationality.”

If there is one way to tactfully open eyes, it’s with art. It’s no wonder that Celdran, like so many artists before him, have latched onto performance as his form of activism. By mixing humor, music, drama and storytelling, an audience can be taken on a journey through the Marcos’ highs and lows. And, when done well, everyone lands in the same place when the curtain falls, thinking the same thing, experiencing the same feelings and perhaps ready to take the same steps toward positive change.

So, what does Ma-Yi want audiences to take away?

“A sense of discovery,” Ortoll says. “The script brings forth the noble intents of Imelda, but her narcissism and psychoses did not allow for her good intentions to be realized well. She is a complex woman. Only people who lived through the Marcos era remember how harrowing those years were - and history lessons should not be distorted with lies and truth evasion.”

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Though the journey of the show was unique, perhaps it’s fitting that Livin’ La Vida Imelda’s origins were in a literal pilgrimage around Manila. Tourists and residents of the city could march together, and come to conclusions about the controversial Imelda Marcos together. Now, fresh audiences in a new country will take their own steps with the story, Celdran still ready and revving as he encourages you to “walk this way!”

Livin' La Vida Imelda closes this weekend. For tickets, head to


This post is Part 2 in our Kwentuhan blog series. Kwentuhan is a UniPro initiative that promotes storytelling in the Filipino American community. Read Part 1 here.

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!

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, inspired a monologue by the character called Fire.

Daly created the website as retaliation to discovering that “,” 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

Filipino Arts Renaissance: Kilusan Bautista


Among other art forms, "Universal Self" features martial arts and break dancing. Kilusan Bautista looks as comfortable on stage as others would be in their living rooms. His voice rises up and down in rhythmic acrobatics: flipping sounds into the air, letting stories free fall, catching each word in his natural cadence. He presses the microphone to his lips so that each “p” sound punches the air.

Deep down in my soul I pray to the universe with my flow I am a child of the wild metropolitan jungle.

This is the beginning of his one-man show Universal Self, an autobiographical theatrical performance combining his life experience with spoken word, dancing, martial arts, and hip-hop music. The production revolves around Kilusan’s struggles with identity as a Filipino-American at the intersection of two cultures, family issues, and in his words, “social justice.” The show is a coming-of-age story, set in the 1980s and 1990s of Kilusan’s native San Francisco. Using every inch of the stage, he break dances, lyrically moves, performs spoken word while doing Pilipino martial arts, and disappears into different characters.

“Theater to me is like my jacket. It allows me to bring everything together,” he said. He speaks fluidly and uninterrupted save for carefully chosen dramatic pauses. When presented the word “stability,” Kilusan takes time to chew on the word.

“What IS stability?" He then drifts off into the importance of education, talks about writing, and goes into anecdotes about his father, uncles, and friends for several minutes.

“Stability was not financial, not just having a roof over my head… For me, stability came from the arts.”

It’s possible Kilusan wouldn’t have become an artist without his dad's struggles. He grew up in a turbulent household with a drug-addicted father; 12-year-old Kilusan would sometimes tag along to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He kept himself out of the house as much as possible, finding solace in break dancing, theater, and martial arts.

Kilusan Bautista, creator of one-man show "Universal Self."

“[Art] revolutionized my whole identity, my expression, my voice, and as an adult and professional artist, my expression is full body. My identity has a lot to do with movement.” His name – Kilusan–means “movement” in tagalog. Originally born Jeremy Tagle Bautista, he changed it in 1999 after hearing it used by teachers and artists in the Philippines on a study abroad visit, doing research for what would eventually become “Universal Self.”

“I took up on that name as a constant reminder for myself that I’m not just an individual but I represent a larger history," the artist, a third generation Filipino-American, said.

At 16 years old, Kilusan left home, as he was fed up with his father’s drug abuse. Two tickets out of town hooked him: poetry and education. Through the Education Opportunity Program benefiting first-generation college students and minorities entering college, Kilusan enrolled in the University of California, Santa Cruz. A scholarship and housing offer convinced him to pursue higher education. To make money, he toured around the globe as part of the Bay Area-based spoken word collective, 8th Wonder.

After graduating from UC Santa Cruz, he took on a slew of community organizing roles, by reaching out to public schools through gang prevention group, United Playaz, in San Francisco and teaching Hip Hop courses around the Bay Area. He moved to New York in 2008. Currently, he’s a teaching artist with NYC’s Department of Education, working at Downtown Brooklyn Access GED and using parts of “Universal Self” as prompts for students to create their own works. Many of the students Kilusan works with share the same gang, drug, and violence-ridden surroundings he experienced while growing up. The mutual understanding allows him to connect with them easily.

“You have to ask the question: Why are the students sharing? Why do they want to be heard? Why do they want to connect and relate to others, you know?” Kilusan spit these questions with a steady rhythm.

“My answer to that is because we’re all still trying to understand who we are and reflect back on it This is a lifelong process.”

Universal Self is constantly shifting. Kilusan claims it will reach a final version the day he arrives on Broadway. He hopes to get a production on the scale of fellow one-man-show, minority background and personal story-driven performer John Leguizamo. When he started out, he scoured every borough for venues that would take an unknown, eventually racking up venues such as the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, Bowery Poetry Club, Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and even the Sahbhaga festival in India.

The typical artists’ woes–finding success, finding an audience, and making money–don't faze him.

“I think as an artist we have to make a choice. And when you make that choice and say yes to it –there’s no looking back. You know, it’s one hundred percent. It’s all or nothing."

Photo credits: Kilusan Bautista and Gerson Abesamis