In our arts column – In Review – Victoria Moy writes about plays, shows, and films that focus on lives lived by people of different ethnicities in America. This week Moy interviews playwright Boni B. Alvarez about his play Bloodletting, which was presented by Playwrights’ Arena at the Atwater Village Theater and will be reopeningand running till . In the play, a brother and sister visit the Philippines to spread their father’s ashes and discover the sister is an aswang—a witch. Alvarez talks about belief of aswangs in Filipino culture and gothic behavior in family relations.
Can you explain what aswangs are to those who are unfamiliar? How afraid should we be of them? Are there any known to live in Los Angeles or the San Gabriel Valley?
Boni B. Alvarez: Basically, aswangs are Filipino witches. They do have vampiric qualities, which makes them a little different from the typical cauldron-circling witches. Personally, I’m not too afraid of aswangs. But that’s because I hold a high regard for them and I was taught that if you pay proper respect, they pretty much leave you alone. I don’t know any specific aswangs in the L.A. area, but we do have the largest Filipino population outside of the Philippines, so there’s gotta be some here…
How much of Bloodletting is based on what you’ve experienced in real life? Are there general rules of conduct or guidelines for people who are related to aswangs or have to live with them?
A lot of the play is imagined and based on gossip, a very popular Filipino pastime. The first time I visited the Philippines was when I was four. There was an aswang who lived across the road from my grandmother. My relatives took me to meet her as a gesture of respect so that she wouldn’t curse me or whatnot. She seemed like a normal woman – just another person in the village.
In Bloodletting, it seems that the deadliest offense that the newly discovered aswang commits is not eating babies, mind-reading, or flying, but inflicting emotional and psychological abuse on her younger brother–it’s not listening, not trying to understand, and belittling. Are you maybe suggesting that we each have a little aswang in ourselves, and need to be vigilant about staying human and connected and not become witches and monsters to our loved ones?
I think, yes. I do believe that we all have innate monstrous qualities, especially in family relations. The way we treat one another can be very gothic behavior and our emotions can escalate to mythic proportions. We don’t have to eat someone’s baby to be hurtful. On the flip side, we can choose to use our powers for good. Sadly, I think we live in a climate where just being nice to someone, treating them with decency, that can be taken as an act of heroism.
Is there a difference between how Filipino Americans and Filipinos regard aswangs?
I think Fil-Ams tend to write them off as myth and Filipinos accept their existence as the norm. I heard a lot about aswangs growing up because my parents are from the Visayas where there’s supposedly a high concentration of aswangs.
Were there any particular highlights or challenges in mounting this production of Bloodletting? Is this your first experience acting in your own play? What is the experience of performing in your own play like?
This is the first time I’ve performed in my own play. We lost some actors in the process, so me acting, that wasn’t planned. It’s definitely a different experience. You kinda have to put the writer’s hat to the side to immerse yourself into the character. There were a few moments where I thought, “Wow, you didn’t really write a transition into this moment.” I had amazing actors to work with and Jon Lawrence Rivera directing, so I felt very safe to play.
Have you written other Asian American horror or mystery plays? What’s next, and how can people follow your work?
I’m not much of a genre person, so Bloodletting is a bit of a departure for me. My play NICKY, which is an adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov, will premiere in June with Coeurage Theatre Company. And my play FIXED premieres at Echo Theater Company next Fall.
Any favorite hangout spots in Alhambra?
Lunasia. I love dim sum.
Written by Boni B. Alvarez
Directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera
Produced by Playwrights’ Arena and Jonathan Munoz-Proulx
Starring Evie Abat, Boni B. Alvarez, Alberto Isaac, and Myra Ocenar
Performance Times: Re-opening January 7th-29th.
Venue: Playwrights’ Arena at Atwater Village Theatre, 3268 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90039
Victoria Moy is a New York-born, Los Angeles-based writer. She has an MFA from University of Southern California, where she studied playwriting and screenwriting, and has a B.A. from Dartmouth College in Theater. She is also the author of the book Fighting for the Dream.
Editor’s note: The interviews were condensed and edited.