Actor Jose Llana on playing Marcos in 'Here Lies love'
The following text is from Next Day Better, a content partner of Rappler. Next Day Better highlights inspiring changemakers, creatives and entrepreneurs from the diaspora focused on creating a better future. Follow @NextDayBetter on Twitter
NEW YORK CITY, USA – It was 1991 when Lea Salonga received her landmark Tony Award for Best Actress in Miss Saigon, a moment that continues to inspire Filipinos today. Jose Llana, who currently plays Ferdinand Marcos in Here Lies Love, currently showing at New York’s Public Theater, remembers this moment vividly because it was the first time he realized his Broadway dreams could come true. “I was a freshman. It helped propel me through high school to go from thinking of it as a fantasy world to ‘hey, this could actually happen if I want it to.’”
Here Lies Love is a musical chronicling Imelda Marcos’ (played by Ruthie Ann Miles) life from starting as a local beauty queen to becoming first lady, until they were ousted in 1986 in what was called the "People Power Revolution" (also known as the EDSA Revolution).
It originally started as a concept album by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim (Norman Cook) before it evolved into a musical directed by Alex Timbers. It is a 360-degree high energy multimedia experience encouraging standing audience members to participate fully by dancing to the disco dance-infused score.
Llana has played Ferdinand Marcos for three and a half years from the start with workshops, its first run at the Public in 2013 and now in its renewed run. Prior to that, he was in the musicals The King and I, RENT and Flower Drum Song, where he was cast alongside Salonga.
In an industry where only a handful of lucky souls can land a role and even less so if you are Asian, Llana’s success strikes a chord. A Philippine-born actor playing a Filipino telling a Filipino story to droves of non-Filipino viewers? Unheard of.
It is worth picking his brain about being Filipino in a tough industry and playing an infamous man of controversy to glean the building blocks of his breakthrough.
Llana, who grew up in the suburbs of Virginia, was only in first grade when he realized he wanted to become a performer. After singing Battle Hymn of the Republic on the PA system, he got his first taste of good reviews. “All day everyone in school from kindergarten to sixth grade was coming up to me asking ‘Is that you?’ I felt like a star, and for the first time I felt like there was something about me that was special.”
He sang for the choir all throughout high school and did an after-school musical theater troupe, where he was picked out to play a role in Hello Dolly, a role not traditionally done by Asians. His teacher insisted that it didn’t matter. “That signaled something I’d be faced with for the rest of my life. If I challenged myself to not just see the surface, other people may do the same. It really opened my mind of what race meant in theater.”
“I came to New York straddling the line between legit theater – like Rodgers and Hammerstein – [and] being able to do rock and roll musicals.” The actor and dancer had roles that ran the gamut from romantic lead Gabey in On the Town to a villain as Guillaume in Martin Guerre. “I’ve been very fortunate in my career that I’ve worked with directors that challenge what race is in a show, too.”
Llana refers to himself as a "martial law baby." He was conceived during martial law and his parents were both anti-Marcos activists who left the Philippines when he was 3. From the point of view of his parents, who made sure to tell Llana and his sister about the lasting effects of martial law, it wasn’t ideal for him to play Marcos.
However, he approached the role leaving his personal opinions aside and dove into research, most of which David Byrne already laid out for the cast. Byrne gave two boxes of biographies and historical journals about Marcos.
“My job is to be part of the story so we could get to the People Power Revolution. It is not my goal to impersonate Marcos, neither is it my goal to be a book report. I’m here to create an essence of a character. In the story, Marcos is a master charismatic seducer, he was a smart savvy politician that took advantage of the country’s trust. Do I have sympathy for him? No. Do I like him? No. But it’s not my job to like the character I’m playing. It’s my job to create.”
Here Lies Love is the first time Filipino history is reaching an audience of such a large scale in the world’s most famous city for theater. However, the story was not written by Filipinos, but by a white Scottish American and a white English man, which might raise suspicions of authenticity.
Is this a cause for concern? Llana says for him, it is not. “I find it obnoxious to claim only Filipinos can tell a Filipino story. Does that mean a good Filipino writer can only write about Filipinos? I challenge that criticism wholeheartedly. I think David Byrne is a genius and I don’t throw that word around lightly.”
According to Llana, Byrne’s intrigue over the People Power Revolution fueled earnest research. “He felt he needed to tell that story. To criticize Byrne because he’s not Filipino, I think, is short sighted. If Filipinos are up in arms that a white guy is telling a story with such sensitivity and pride, then I challenge them to write it themselves. It’s such a reverse sense of racism. If you only supported Filipino art you’d be limited and robbing yourself of fantastic art in the world.”
Since playing Marcos, Llana claims he’s become “more Filipino.” Despite career success that may inspire young and budding Filipino artists to look up to him, Llana denies being an idol. He chooses to stay down to earth. “I hold on to people who keep me grounded and remind me that I’m a fat filipino kid from suburban Virginia at heart. I’m that geeky Filipino kid who loves theatre. If that’s who I remember all the time I think I’m doing fine.”
Here Lies Love is still playing in New York City. For more information about showtimes visit www.herelieslove.com – Rappler.com
Kristina Rodulfo is a NYC writer and editor with a journalist’s curiosity, novelist’s creativity, and tweeter’s perspective. Her number one passion is being a storyteller for the Filipino community. Follow her on Twitter: @KristinaRodulfo.
See related stories
• VINTA's Caroline Mangosing: Re-imagining Filipiniana
• Living to keep Filipino theater alive in Canada
• The theater of Nina Lee Aquino
• Mark Bautista joins London cast of 'Here Lies Love' as Marcos
• Tagalogue: Voices of the diaspora