Oddly named Fil-Am theater group with a big heart
Bindlestiff is an odd name for a Filipino American theater company. But then again being somewhat odd, weird, offbeat and irreverent is what Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco is about.
Take that video clip at the top of this page.
It shows some of the theater company’s members led by board chair Michael Dorado, producer Joyce Juan Manalo and actors Allan Manalo, Rhoda Gravador, Patrick Silvestre and Joshua Icban, giving an impromptu performance in front of an old man with a cane and dark glasses.
The video clip is just 55 seconds long. But it gives you a glimpse of a small Fil-Am theater company in San Francisco with a big heart.
But more on that later. That part of the story can be better appreciated in the context of Bindlestiff’s amazing journey, including its strange name.
In a way, it’s not surprising that one the most well known Filipino-American theater organizations in the U.S., the only one with a performing arts venue dedicated to Filipino theater, ended up with a quirky name.
After all, the group traces its roots to earlier Fil-Am theater companies with strange names.
There was TnT. No, that’s not for dynamite. It’s also not for “tago nang tago,” as undocumented Filipinos in the US are referred to. TnT is for Teatro ng Tanan, which had a successful, if brief, run as a Fil-Am theater company in the early 1990s.
TnT morphed into the comedy troupe called Tongue in a Mood. If you don’t understand what that means, here’s a hint: Say it really fast.
Tongue in a Mood became famous for crazy sketches about the Filipino experience in the U.S. In one skit, decorations commonly found in Filipino homes that have been banished to the basement come to life, including a girl dancing the Tinikling, a naked man in a barrel and Jesus Christ.
The Tongue in a Mood sketches were a hit among young Fil-Ams in the 1990s. The performing arts curator at Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, Linda Lucero, compared one of the group’s shows to a rock concert.
“It was pretty phenomenal,” she told me in 2000. “We don’t really host Rolling Stones-type things. It was nice to see young people want to see theater.”
Eventually, Tongue In a Mood itself was reborn, re-emerging as Bindlestiff.
No, that’s not another Pilipino expletive in disguise. Bindlestiff means a wandering homeless person and was first used to refer to hobos in the Depression era.
Local theater artists in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood started the company in 1989. They came up with the name.
In the late 1990s, these local artists turned over control of the space to Fil-Am theater artists led by Allan Manalo and Joyce Juan Manalo, who had become regular performers at the theater.
“I thought it was an amazing space,” Allan told me three years ago shortly before a renovated Bindlestiff theater opened. “It was located in a kinda sketchy neighborhood, but it was great.”
That “sketchy” neighborhood, known as South of Market, or Soma, is known as a hangout for locals with drug and other problems. Bindlestiff theater is located in the heart of a tough San Francisco neighborhood where people down on their luck struggle daily to live.
The neighborhood is also home to many Filipinos, many of them working class new immigrants. For years in the 1990s, many of these new immigrants were elderly Filipino World War II veterans.
That made Bindlestiff’s latest production, “The Guerrillas of Powell Street,” the play by Rody Vera (based on my novel), about the struggles of Pinoy beteranos in San Francisco, an exciting and special project for many members of the Bindlestiff gang, many of whom are immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants.
In fact, producer Lorna Velasco grew up in the neighborhood where Bindlestiff is located. She was 11 when she arrived in the U.S. to join her family. Her father cleaned hotel rooms for a living, while her mother was a seamstress.
She was featured in a 2001 San Francisco Chronicle article about the Filipino community’s effort to convince city officials to provide a permanent home for Bindlestiff. The small theater, then run by local artists, became a special place for a shy girl who had just arrived from the Philippines. There she was exposed to performers and theater artists of all sorts — musicians, clowns, puppeteers, stiltwalkers, mask-makers, comedians and dancers.
“Instead of hanging out after school, I was at Bindlestiff learning about (Jerzy) Grotowski, (Bertolt) Brecht and commedia dell’arte, and sculpting masks and hanging lights,” she told city officials in one of the public hearings, the article said. “I was a quiet immigrant girl from Sixth Street who for the first time was learning how to express herself in the beauty of dance and in the power of theater.”
Of course, she knew of the “beteranos,” the elderly men who began arriving in the Bay Area in the 1990s after being granted US citizenship.
Most of them were poor and they endured poverty, sickness and isolation in the U.S. in order to support their families back home. Most of them have died or returned home.
The play, which was the English translation of the original Pilipino production at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila, was meant to honor them.
But it turned out to be more than that. Which brings us back to the video clip.
“The Guerrillas of Powell Street” supposedly ended last Saturday after a successful four-weekend run.
Well, it didn’t.
The day after closing night, something unusual and unexpected happened.
The Bindlestiff folks were cleaning up the theater Sunday afternoon, when the old man in the video, quietly walked in.
What happened Lorna, who took the video, described as “an unforgettable moment,” and on “top on my list of great experiences in theatre.”
“As we were resting and getting ready to pack our cars, an old man in a hat, dark glasses and cane, tentatively stepped through the wide open doors and asked about the show,” she recalled in an email.
His name was Francisco Viray, a World War II veteran, who lived in the Bindlestiff neighborhood. His wife had recently died.
The old beterano politely told the young people cleaning the theater that he wanted to see the play.
“All our faces were crestfallen, as we told him regrettably that last night was the last show,” Lorna continued.
But for a community theater group based in a tough neighborhood where its members dream of using theater to tell stories of people whose stories are typically forgotten, one can always improvise.
“Without missing a beat, Rhoda, Joyce and Josh offered to sing and play for him,” Lorna recalled. “I jumped down the stairs to gather Mike and Allan to see if they too would like to sing for him.
“For half an hour, we went through all the songs from the play. Manong Francisco clapped, laughed and sang along. We just about lost it when Manong Francisco sang every word from the Green Beret song (Major Amor) along with us.”
That’s the Tagalog version of the Hollywood movie tune that one of the play’s main characters, Major Rodolfo Amor, sang after his death.
“For the rest of the hour, he shared stories of his time in the war, his wife who recently passed and, as a token of his gratitude, recited an eloquent deep Tagalog poem for us.”
She added: “It summed up, in an unexpected way, what this show has meant to all of us.”
It also summed what Bindlestiff has come to mean to community theater and to many Filipinos in San Francisco.
Visit (and like) the Kuwento page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/boyingpimentel
On Twitter @boyingpimentel
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.