nicole maxali

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.”

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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.”

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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:

A Fil-Am Reflection: Here Lies Love, Disco and Filipinos!


By Nicole Maxali, guest contributor

My boss asked if I want the New York Times to read. I say “Sure!” and read it on the train ride home. The cover story of the Fashion & Style section is an interview with Talking Head’s lead singer David Byrne and Cyndi Lauper. (Side note: I’m a huge Cyndi Lauper fan. And one of the last conversations my father and I had before he suddenly died in 2011 was about Cyndi’s artistry, her drive as a creative, and the fact that she followed the beat of her own drum). In the article Byrne & Lauper share their “famous pasts and their theatrical presents — she as the Tony-winning composer and lyricist of the Broadway hit Kinky Boots, and he as the Obie-winning creator of the musical spectacle Here Lies Love, about the former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos."

I’ve been dying to see both musicals since I moved to NYC. Last year, Here Lies Love played for an extended run but I wasn’t able to catch it because I was either too busy or too broke. But the article stated that Here Lies Love returns to The Public Theater for a permanent run in April! Another chance to see it? Score! I immediately hit up my friend to see if we can go together.  I get a text from her two days later saying, “Do you want to attend the preview with me?” See a $119 show for FREE? Double score! At this point, I don’t know what to expect except that it’s a 90 minute show and its set in a disco club so there are no seats and dancing is highly suggested.

I wear my most comfortable dancing shoes and meet her in the lobby of The Public Theater. We wait and wait and wait.  She texts her contact but no one comes to meet us. We wait some more.  And she notices a big group of gay boys going up a flight of stairs. Then a tall man in all white with white hair enters the lobby and heads towards the stairs. She asks him a question and he gestures us to follow. At this point, I’m trying not to geek out. I’m trying not to blurt out:

“I loved your interview with Cyndi in the NY Times!” or

“My dad loved the Talking Heads! My mom thinks you’re a genius!” or

“Hi, I’m Nicole Maxali and you’re DAVID BYRNE!”

Yeah, so I don’t say any of those things and just keep my mouth shut as we ascend the staircase that leads to The LuEsther Theater or the disco club that was once the LuEsther.

We walk in and it’s a typical club equipped with black lights, go-go stages, huge screens and a DJ booth above us. No chairs. No VIP bottle service couches. Nowhere to sit. Nothing like you’d expect a musical show venue to look like. And then it begins.

I have to admit there was a moment in the beginning of the show, when the liberal SF State Pilipino American Collegiate Activist in my head started to say: Wait. Is this show just a glorification of the Marcos era? Is Byrne not going to bring up the fact that the 1,000 pairs shoe lady was really part of a horrible time in Philippine’s history? Is this just going to be about Imelda’s extravagant life of excess?

In that moment I was hoping this wasn’t going to be like The Help. The Oscar-winning film has raised objections in the African American community, which may have to do with the fact that it was written by a white author. In a statement about the movie, The Association of Black Women Historians have said:

“Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.”

So although I am a third gen Filipino-American from Cali, I still remember my grandmother’s horror stories about what the Marcos regime was doing to our mother country and our family in the 70’s & 80’s. And how much we celebrated in San Francisco when Aquino took office in 1986. I remember that regardless of Imelda’s extravagant life, her people (some of my family members) were suffering and abused during her twenty year reign as the first lady of the Philippines.

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But I tried to keep an open mind and I’m glad I did. Midway through the show, we witnessed how seamlessly Byrne and the director, Alex Timbers, incorporated historical facts into the story line of the musical both lyrically and visually. In the days following the preview, I found out that David Byrne did a thorough job at researching and investing his time into this show. Ten years to be exact. On his blog, David writes:

“Here Lies Love is entirely true and much of the lyric content comes from speeches and interviews the various characters gave over the years.”

I respect him even more for putting the work in and for incorporating actual speeches and interviews into his artistic vision.

Once I had calmed my inner Filipina activist, I was able to be immersed into the world of disco, love and politics. Yes, it’s everything the descriptions and reviews say it is. It’s fun and enthralling but at times heart-wrenching but beautifully acted and sung throughout. I also realized that this show was less a glorification of Imelda and more a story that humanizes this woman’s journey. It humanizes a woman that both the media and personal greed made into a larger than life caricature like a Filipino Marie Antoinette… except with possibly a hundred times more shoes and her head intact. There was one point of the musical that made me actually feel sorry for her and feel like if I were in her shoes (no pun intended), maybe I would’ve turned into the woman she became.

As I danced my way through each scene I felt a sense of pride. I was ironically witnessing Filipino-American history of a Filipino history lesson on stage. I was proud to see other Filipino artists singing, acting and dancing on stage while still being Filipino characters. The first time I witnessed a Filipino actor on stage in NYC was Lea Solanga in Les Misérables where she played Éponine (a French teenager). That was 18 years ago! Finally two decades later there is a semi-mainstream show that is representing Filipinos in a way that isn’t either a racist stereotypical comedic bit or a highly sexualized prostitute or a submissive mail order bride.

There has never been a musical or play with this much media attention (VogueNew York Times and The New Yorker have all written reviews on the show) and Off Broadway support in NYC that is written about Filipinos casted with “mainly” Filipino actors. I use quotes around mainly because in my research I found that almost all of the characters in the musical are Filipino except for the main actress playing Imelda. Wait, What? Yeah, the actress Ruthie Ann Miles is of Korean descent from Hawaii. I do have mixed feelings about producers casting any person of color for a specific ethnicity but I will say that on the night of the preview Ruthie Ann Mills was under the weather and so her standby performed instead. Her stand in (or swing), Jaygee Macapugay, was amazing and she is of Filipino descent. But alas as David Byrne told us before the show, “Unfortunately, the swing will not be doing any of the hair or costume changes tonight.” That’s ok. Just another reason to go back and see the show.

There was one question that I wanted to ask David Byrne. Why Imelda Marcos? I unfortunately didn’t have the (disco) balls to do it. Fortunately, I looked over the NY times article my boss gave me to read on the subway and found my Q&A there:

"I read somewhere that she loved going to discos. She went to Studio 54. She was hanging out with Andy Warhol and Halston and those people. She put a mirror ball in her house. How many people do that? I thought this woman lives in that world, and that means something. The fact that disco music connects with her life, how she sees herself, that’s significant. And I thought: I know that music, I like that music. Maybe I can tell a story that way." - David Byrne

And with music as his passion David Byrne did just that. Probably unaware how inspiring his ten-year project would be to future Filipino-American artists, his own passion gave me hope that if a story about a Filipino woman can garner so much attention and support outside of the Filipino-American community then it is possible to do the same with my own work.

Because how do communities of color rise above racism and under representation in the mainstream media? We write, produce and direct or own stories regardless if the gate keepers ask us or allow us to do it. In a recent article about Asian American representation on TV, Alanna Bennett added the quote from Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz:

“You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror…And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all… And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors.”

On that brisk April night, I walked out of The Public Theater humming Here Lies Love in my head. And in my heart… inspired that my stories will manifest one day on screen/stage. Thank you for this musical that is a huge mirror for Filipino-Americans, David Byrne. My mom is right. You are a genius.

Info and Tickets:‎

General tickets: $99.00 Rush tickets: A limited number of $40 day-of-performance rush tickets will be available, at The Public’s Taub Box Office (425 Lafayette Street, NYC) starting at 6:00 p.m. on all Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays for those evening performances.

The original version of this post originally appeared on Nicole Maxali’s blog

Photo credit: Here Lies Love

My Days as a Car Show Model… Surprise!


By Nicole Maxali, guest contributor In college I took a women’s studies class. It was a class on the study of how women are represented in mass media. Entering this class, I knew the sexual objectification of women was not a new phenomenon. But one of the assignments was to document and cut out ten ads that either objectified women or depicted women as objects. We had to also write a short analysis of how or why the ad was objectifying women. I found it was super easy to find images in magazines to complete this assignment.

At the time of this assignment I was also beginning to model at various car shows as a side hustle. Surprise! Yes, before I turned 21, I was one of those Fast and Furious car show models (like the one pictured below). I’ll save you the time and energy of searching on Google for any pics of me bending over a hood of a car in short shorts and a sports bra… because there are none! This was before things like the iPhone, Facebook & Instagram. Whew!

I realized very quickly that using my female form to help promote “rice rockets” wasn’t something I felt very comfortable with. Most models at these car shows enjoyed the attention and the flocks of men wanting to take their pictures. But after two gigs and my women’s studies class assignment, I reached the conclusion that I didn’t want to be known as just a hot body. 

I felt I was facing a fork in the road, I could choose to continue with “modeling” and be known as the other “Nikki” within the car show scene (the picture above is of the very popular Nikki Cash on the cover of Drag Sport magazine). Or I could focus on my writing and acting and do something with the talents and skills God blessed me with. Follow my passion? Or follow the road filled with fast cars, cash and VIP bottle service? As you can see now, I choose my passion. Sorry, creeper dudes! But there’s plenty of sexy Nikki Cash pix on the web for your perusing.

For my tenth image in my women’s studies assignment, I choose a picture of me modeling in front of a supped up Honda Civic with a spoiler so big it made the car look more like a shopping cart. And instead of an analysis I wrote a letter to my professor thanking her for solidifying the fact that my worth was not based on my physical appearance and that allowing men to objectify me for their gain was something I had control over.

Looking back now -- and looking at the plethora of “models” so popular on Instagram (IG) -- Do I regret that I didn’t take the easy path? No. Not even for a little bit.  Because when I die, even if I don’t have model money, I don’t want my legacy to be known for my ability to sell products or my ability to look super skinny and hot in 4,000 of my IG photos. I want my Goddess Daughters to be able to see someone they can aspire to. To know that their worth isn’t just how they look, but that they beauty they can bring to this world is with their minds, hearts and actions. I do what I do for them.

Today, what is new to the objectification of women is the prevalent use of Photoshop and technology to slim and “beautify” the image of women (and celebrities in general) in media and advertisement. This type of beauty becomes an impossible image to aspire too. It is yet another struggle young girls and women face as they grow up in this world. To not only be “beautiful” but to also be perfect. I want to instill in all little girls that beauty begins from within. 

Nicole Maxali is a New New Yorker. Native to San Francisco, she began performing at Bindlestiff Studio, the only Filipino-American Theater in the nation. In 2008, Nicole Maxali wrote and performed her very first solo show under the tutelage of W. Kamau Bell (FX’s Totally Biased). Under the direction of Paul Stein at Comedy Central Theater, Nicole developed her original twenty minute piece titled “I Heart Lola” into her full length show, “Forgetting the Details”. Described by legendary comic Dave Chappelle as “funny, heartwarming and funny again”, Nicole Maxali’s 75 minute solo performance piece explores the familial and cultural-related challenges a young adult faces when losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s. She has performed her solo show at the famous Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater in New York City, The FIND Conference at Harvard University and the Minnesota Fringe Festival. You can also see Nicole on the big screen as a surgical nurse in the independent film, Fruitvale Station, produced by Forest Whitaker & directed by Ryan Coogler.

The original version of this post, inspired by “Killing Us Softly 4”, originally appeared on Nicole Maxali's blog