These Fil-Ams speak ‘Tagalogue’

An ensemble of creative Filipino Americans banded together for a live gig to celebrate their connection to Tapsilog Country

SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE. The 'Tagalogue' ensemble includes (back, from left) Anton Briones, Philippe Garcesto, Randy Gener, Alfretz Costelo, Maria Gregorio, Leslie Espinosa, Robert Wolf; (front, from left) Jessica Abejar, Joelle Abejar, Andre Dimapilis, Precious Sipin and Julian Pormentilla. Photo from

MANILA, Philippines – Part-Filipino, part-American, all good.

That’s how the vibe was last weekend as a dozen or so fairly young, US-based talents of Philippine descent descended upon an enduring café in New York to mount Tagalogue, a performance art show that combined all-original writing, poetry, spoken word, dance and music to portray various facets to Filipino American life. 

The presentations last October 12 and 13 at the nearly-40-year-old Nuyorican Poets Café on East 3rd Street in New York, USA were in line with the celebration of Filipino American History Month and marked the second staging or “Volume 2” of Tagalogue

New meaning to ‘Tagalugin mo nga’

Founded and created by Leslie Ferrer Espinosa, the daughter of a United States Navy man from Pangasinan and a nurse from Nueva Ecija, Tagalogue sprung in part from Espinosa’s own experiences in New York, where she has been based since 2008 and has been alternating cultural stints with work as a hairstylist and makeup artist.

She is also a mentor for the outfit called Soulciety Inc., particularly of its cultural “bridge program” workshops that connect US-based Pinoys to their kababayans in Philippine rural areas.

In a previous interview, Espinosa mentioned conversing with clients during styling sessions about her Pinoy lineage and traits. Soon enough, she figured that she could parlay her stories, along with those of other Filipino-Americans, into a series of monologues and dialogues that can be rendered onstage. (Add to this the reported fact that Fil-Ams are the US’ so-called “invisible minority” due to the lack of societal recognition despite their being the second largest Asian American group.)

So Espinosa thought of Tagalogue, its title a Taglish wordplay that hints at the catalogue of amusing and touching anecdotes in store for the show’s audience. Debuting last July 21 also at the 100-odd-seater Nuyorican, Espinosa alternated with 7 other performers for an hour-plus show that proved to be a success. 

“[Tagalogue’s] initial run had a great response,” Espinosa tells RAPPLER. “Filipinos could play Filipino on stage, and we do have a burning desire to tell stories of the Filipino experience. People thanked us, saying that the [Fil-Am] community needed this.” 

More than an easy sequel

A repeat of Tagalogue was inevitable. 

But rather than simply restaging the show, Tagalogue evolved.

Whereas the first run had 8 performers, the new edition had a total of 12. The entire program clocked in at an hour and a half with a 15-minute intermission, each segment averaging 5 to 7 minutes. While predominantly in English, portions of the show utilized Tagalog speech and spoke of places in the Philippines.

“Our unifying theme,” Espinosa relates, “is that we have voices and we want to use them. We are writing history and creating this identity of what it is to be Filipino American. There is a true rebirth of our community and the artists.

“We want to unify. We are Filipinos and our stories are so colorful. We want to answer the question, ‘What is Filipino?’”

Co-producing Tagalogue with Espinosa were activist-performance artist Kilusan Bautista and Precious Sipin, the latter an actor-artist whose Tagalogue piece, “Dalaga,” honored the “strength and light” of past and present Filipinas.

Tagalogue ladies…

Tagalogue’s larger batch of players included 5 other ladies:

  • Jessica Abejar is a youth coordinator and creative/performance artist
  • Joelle Abejar is a member of the dance company of Long Island’s Holy Trinity High School, where she studies
  • Poet-writer Maria Gregorio was published in the 2000 anthology Voices of Brooklyn 
  • Medical student-social entrepreneur-writer Erika Pineda is a cofounder of JeepnED Inc., a Magic School Bus-like venture that promotes science in rural public schools
  • Lorely Trinidad is a writer and co-leader of educational company Theatre for Social Justice Teaching Artist Residency for Fringe Benefits. For Tagalogue, she delivered excerpts from her “Where the Hot Dogs are Red and the Spaghetti is Sweet: 7 Visits to the Philippines.”

Espinosa herself narrated e-mail (Espinosa mail, that is) from her late father, who “passed away when I moved to New York, and that changed my life in a huge way. These are actual letters from him while he was in the Navy, and part of a work in progress simply titled ‘Letters 1 through 5’.”

…And gentlemen

7 gents rounded up the beefed-up Tagalogue team:

  • Actor Anton Briones has been developing two arts organizations in upstate New York, where he founded the 6-production Adirondack Lakes Summer Theatre Festival
  • Philippine-born, Guam-raised Alfretz Costelo is a New York City resident, actor and “professional hipster”
  • Performance artist and theatre teacher Andre Dimapilis is part of several organizations, including the Brooklyn Performing Arts Intensive and the Story Pirates
  • Mixed media performance artist Philippe Garcesto was a cast member of the recent Lena’s Way, a first-love story set in Marcos-era Philippines
  • Playwright-director-visual artist Randy Gener is the 2012 Outstanding Artist Awardee of the Filipino American National Historical Society’s Metro NY chapter. For Tagalogue, the penman of such plays as Love Seats for Virginia Woolf and Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool will share a monologue from his new play in progress.
  • San Pablo City-born Julian Pormentilla is a downtown New Jersey-based sales manager for the finance outfit OneWire
  • And New York-born-and-raised Robert Wolf is a 2010 graduate of Fordham University, where he took up communications and media studies with a concentration on journalism

All the way home?

Whereas the first Tagalogue was helmed by the participants themselves, the show’s latest incarnation got a dedicated director: Grant Thomas, an NY-based artist-social entrepreneur-actor who is part of A Chorus Line in New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. 

“I wanted to bring professionalism to our show and have him direct our story,” Espinosa explains of engaging Thomas, “to give fresh eyes to the show and therefore make sure it is understood and enjoyed by all.” 

To further professionalize Tagalogue, auditions were held within the past US summer to streamline the hopefuls.

Entertainment is the primary objective to any show and Tagalogue is no exception. Still, Espinosa muses that, “My goal for this show has been to inspire all audiences, educating those who are not Filipino about our culture.

“I had non-Filipinos who watched the first show tell me that they enjoyed seeing similarities and differences among the performers and Filipinos whom they actually knew.”

The weekend’s shows are done, but it’s still far from the end for Tagalogue. “An audience member from our first show who happens to be a coordinator for a youth group in Queens, NY, auditioned for this new show, and I will be working with them for the next volume,” Espinosa enthuses.

For the long term, the Filipina who started this little show that could longs to take its “blueprint to youth groups, schools and colleges all over the country, and take it home to the Philippines.” 

From New York City, USA — to New York Street, Quezon City?

That might well be the Filipino American dream. –