Reading History and Culture through Performance: Jeannie Barroga and the Legacy of Asian American Theatre by Lucayo Casillas
The papers of playwright Jeannie Barroga are now open for research. Lucayo Casillas processed the collection and wrote the following article.
The history of the United States’ relationship with the Philippines, and the nature of the Filipino/a-American experience are each subjects that still require greater recognition in mainstream American consciousness. Scholars, artists, and activists have labored to integrate these subjects into the master narrative of American history, as the Philippines and the United States have been socially, politically, and economically intertwined for the past century. The level of awareness among conventional Americans of the relationship between these countries, however, does not align with its magnitude in terms of the course of global history. With her work as a playwright, Jeannie Barroga has sought to address these issues by using theatre as a platform for the representation of Filipino/a and Filipino/a-American life, culture, and experiences, as well as themes that resonate with the greater Asian American community.
From the 1980s and through the 21st century, Barroga has brought forth cutting edge productions that have provided audiences with a space to explore critical issues concerning the Asian-American diaspora. In her 1989 production Walls, Barroga engaged with themes of racial and political tension that have impacted Asian American communities as she followed the events surrounding the installation of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington D.C. constructed by architect and designer Maya Lin in 1982. Several of her works, of course, concern the experiences of Filipino/a migrants in the United States. Eye of the Coconut, originally produced in 1987, was an early work of this nature that explored the difficult issues of migration and assimilation while also maintaining an element of family-friendly humor. In 1991, Barroga released a more somber production, Kenny was a Shortstop, which followed the tragic death of a Filipino teen, and was based on a true story. The play provided audiences with glimpses of how the intersections of poverty, gang-violence, racism, and assimilation truly impact Filipino/a-American lives.
One of Barroga’s latest productions carried audiences a hundred years into the past when the United States invaded the Philippines and thus initiated the tense relationship between the two nations. This was Buffalo’ed, originally performed in 2012. Barroga was fascinated by the history of the African-American Buffalo Soldiers. As a force of former slaves, the Buffalo Soldiers derived from oppressed peoples, but were nonetheless compelled to fight against other oppressed peoples, including the Filipino/a nationalists, rebels, and tribal-warriors who resisted the American occupation. During the Phillipine-American war, some Buffalo Soldiers not only gleaned the peculiar and ironic situation they were in, but acted on their observations, and took a stand against the American violence in the Phillipines. One such soldier was David Fagen, a figure in history that Barroga studied heavily for this play, as I found multiple documents related to Fagen in her files. Fagen bore witness to the carnage that the U.S. wrought in the Philippines, and was taken aback when he discerned the racism of the white-American soldiers toward the Filipino/a people, including their use of the very same racial epithets that have been historically associated with black-Americans. All of this prompted Fagen to defect from the U.S. Army and join the Filipino/a cause. In the end, Fagen was either killed or managed to endure in the mountains never to be seen by the Americans again.
Telling the story about this conflict was very important to Barroga. In an interview she referred to the events as “a little-known war,” and states that despite the fact that the conflict was “the first imperialist war of the U.S. after the Civil War,” it unfortunately stands a mere “footnote in history – if you read American history books it’s just something that’s not covered as well as the other wars.” Although the Buffalo’ed takes place during the Phillipine-American War, Barroga stated that the play is “not really a war story,” but is “really about the people…the people behind the scenes who you don’t hear much about or from."  Barroga also maintained her stylistic approach toward critical social and political issues, by engaging with these issues while also leaving space for gaiety. Alleluia Panis, a collaborating artist for the play, stated that audiences could expect to be “entertained with a lot of humor and a lot of good feelings,” but also “educated” on a troubled history.
Ultimately, as a playwright Jeannie Barroga demonstrates how theatre is an important medium for addressing social issues, promoting the representation of people of color, and even engaging in restorative healing after legacies of historical trauma. Thus, as curator at Stanford Libraries Rebecca Wingfield stated, Jeannie Barroga’s “rich archive will be of great interest to students and scholars of Asian diasporic and American theater."