by Kat Lucero
“Indigenous warrior, oh warrior, I summon thee. Raise your voice to the sky and walk with pride.”
It’s not in every production, in which one hears the singing evocation of the Filipino indigenous past; which later turns into a bumpin’ dance number rousing the spirit of Tupac Shakur’s California. But Jeremy “Kilusan” Bautista does just that.
In “Universal Filipino” Bautista gives a coming-of-age Filipino American story a modern twist as a solo hip-hop theater production. He uses hip hop, dance, interpretive movement and spoken word to take us on a whirlwind trip to his youth in the Bay Area and the Philippines. He portrays a myriad of characters from his past, including a father fallen into addiction and a young Bautista coming to grips with being an American-born Filipino, drug and alcohol abuse in the family, gangs, street life and, of course, his love for hip hop.
He connects the subconscious with reality by weaving family wisdom with the historical and indigenous facets of the Philippines. His spiritual representations of his inner struggle between good and evil include the folkloric character Malakas and the Hater, Bautista’s creation that likely embodies the negative effects of imperialism in the Philippines.
“I wanted to tell my story as a Filipino-American who is in a process of reclaiming his history and culture,” says Bautista. “So these ideas with the character of Malakas or the Hater, it’s like a historic battle that’s being played out in the spirit-world and that influences our every day reality. As an artist, I question where do these things come from. The only way I could make sense out of it is to incorporate them within my play.”
“Universal Filipino” is heavy with content, but with musical direction by his live deejay and sound engineer, Tyson Dai, also known as DJ Soulcrates, he makes it work into a one-man play.
Bautista is no stranger to performing. His resume is packed with spoken word and hip hop theater experiences in the Bay Area, including being a core member of 8th Wonder, a Filipino spoken-word group. He wrote and directed “A Tuyo in the Sun,” a story of three generations of his family’s immigration from the Philippines to the United States in 2002 at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he attended.
Bautista started writing “Universal Filipino” in 2005, but after a breakup in 2009 he focused his energy on making his piece into a full-scale production. That’s when he moved to New York.
It’s never easy to break into the New York arts scene, but Bautista was determined. He reunited with Dai, who was already in the Big Apple and whom he worked with while they were in Santa Cruz. A televised Manny Pacquiao fight in the Upper West Side serendipitously brought them together. He also searched the five boroughs for spaces to showcase his play until he found Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, a community arts group in the Bronx. At Rebel Diaz, he collaborated with Yuisa Dávila and premiered two full performances of “Universal Filipino.”
His current team of creatives comprises himself, Dai and dance choreographers Jeffrey Kairi Bautista and Lia McPherson. With his group, he plans on evolving his play as he takes it to the next level of full-length performances all over New York, with Broadway being the pinnacle.
As much as “Universal Filipino” is his own story, it also tries to reveal and empower those who’ve shared a working-class struggle, Filipino or not. Bautista says he is inspired by justice and believes his personal interactions with the community are all political.
“I’m challenged by the idea of justice and to really embody somebody that wants to fight for equal rights for a better type of world to live in,” he says. “I want to be a part of this movement that’s really working toward the progression of the human spirit.”
“Universal Filipino” has already taken Bautista to a variety of venues this past summer. In Washington, D.C., he performed excerpts at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall with Sulu DC, an Asian American and Pacific Islander American arts collective in the D.C.-area. In New York, it was at the Bowery Poetry Club in downtown Manhattan with Sulu Series NYC and in front of a group of domestic workers affiliated with Ugnayan, a New York-area Filipino youth organization. Bautista even performed at an incoming freshman class at Yale University.
“I was kinda going through like a process of questioning if they would receive it well,” he says. “But again, you know, I think when you bring out your heart and you really give something people can think about, it doesn’t matter what audience it is. It’ll resonate.”
And it did.
“I was able to talk to this one Dominican brother…He came up to me and was just like, ‘Yo, man, you told my story,’” reminisces Bautista. “He grew up here in the Bronx and now he’s going to Yale, first generation in his family to go to college. This is his first couple of days at Yale University, just feeling alienated. For me to come up there just to share my story within a collegiate level was just, yo, I feel validated. I feel I have a place here.”
Although his piece represents a universal theme of struggle, his family and their story in this play are still central to Bautista. His father, in particular, is still influential.
“I think about his struggles when he asks himself, ‘Is it all worth it? Is it worth continuing to fight for?’” he contemplates. “For him, even though I don’t agree with his ways or the decisions that he makes, his goal is to support his family. His goal is to maintain a home so that my family and the generations to follow have something here in America. I take that example, and then I magnify that within what I’m doing here in New York City.”
And when his aunt and uncle from California came to see him perform with Sulu DC for the first time, Bautista said his uncle was moved by the memories in “Universal Filipino.”
“My uncle was joking around, talking about how he was going to relapse to drinking again because he used to have a bad alcohol problem,” he says. “But what touched me was that he was about to cry…after the show. I could see him pacing back and forth, and he was looking left and right. He was like…‘You touched me, you know?’ I hope I got him to the point where he doesn’t drink again!”
About the Guest Writer: Katya “Kat” Lucero is a Washington, D.C.-based writer. She hails from Chicago, but she is writing, drinking, eating and groovin’ her way through the nation’s capital… and the three- to four-hour ride to the Empire State of Mind.