Criers for Hire: Mourning as a profession

In our arts column – In Review – Victoria Moy writes about plays, shows and films that focus on lives as lived by the different ethnicities in America. This week Moy interviews playwright Giovanni Ortega and director Jon Lawrence Rivera via email about their new show "Criers for Hire" at East West Players. They talk about the visibility of Filipino Americans, moms working abroad who are separated from their children, and professional mourning, which is one of the most historical occupations in the world. It has been practiced for thousands of years in different cultures, especially in Asian countries such as the Philippines, China and Vietnam.

Can you give us some background about what a funeral crier is? How much of the play is based on reality and what you see in the San Gabriel Valley?

Ortega: Funeral criers exist all over the globe and is a tradition in many cultures. The focus in our iteration is the Chinese culture. The fact that one of the characters bought the business in the San Gabriel Valley is of course a work of fiction, but drawing from the extensive influence of the Asian American experience there was a good starting point.

What do you hope to convey to your audience members through "Criers for Hire"?

Ortega: My hope is that "Criers for Hire" will shed light on the stories of a very specific under-represented group during a time when visibility is still lacking in the Filipino and Filipino-American identity. The goal was not only to share these women’s stories but also to witness first hand the intersectional experiences they have with other groups in the Los Angeles area.

A character strikes a pose on stageThe play takes place in the 90s. How much of what is set up in this play in this time periodwith a Filipino mom traveling all over the world working low-paying jobs to provide for her daughterstill applies today?

Ortega: I am the child of a mother who worked abroad until she finally brought me [to America] when I was 12 years old in 1989. As of today, more than a million Filipinos every year leave to work abroad through overseas employment agencies, and other programs, including government-sponsored initiatives.

In 2013, 10.2 million Overseas Filipinos Workers (OFW) has jobs outside of the Philippines for the sole purpose of sending it back home to their families. This has been ongoing for several generations and is the actual story of many Filipinos who are considered to be Bagong Bayani, the new heroes of the country.

The actors' performance of crying is hysterical. Is paid crying in real life much like this?

Jon Lawrence Rivera: Crying in Chinese funerals is not as exaggerated as we have presented. The play was framed as if we're watching a "soap opera" so we can amplify the crying. Once we framed it as a soap opera we were able to broaden the action. Much like when you watch a telenovela (or a "teleserya"Filipino soaps).

Ortega: Though funerals may be a somber event, I wanted to tap into the absurdity and theatrics of being a mourner and found that it easily lent itself to comedy.

Actresses cry on stageThe Filipino-American teenage protagonist becomes good friends with a Colombian-American boy, and they go to work at Chinese-American funeral parlors. Was there something specific you wanted to communicate to viewers about the intersections of different communities in San Gabriel Valley?

Ortega: Most definitely! The similarities of the immigrant experience, specifically the Latino and Filipino connection is an issue that I wanted to address. I also think it is very important to individualize each culture, even if we have all these similarities together. Latin and Asian are too broad to clump billions of people together. In addition, the play delves into multi-generational issues within one culture as well as look at how Los Angeles is at the heart of many societies that come together. 

What do you think of the intersections of Asian communities in the San Gabriel Valley in real life?

Ortega: I currently work with the Pasadena Playhouse and am involved in creating more Asian-American visibility for the theatre. Self-preservation is as important as creating collaborative relationships with all the SGV communities. I also work in Pomona College in Claremont and have outreached to West Covina, Alhambra, Monterey Park and Pomona. I find that there is support in these communities. Creating a space for their own identities culturally is important.

The main cast of the show sit together

"Criers for Hire"

Where: David Henry Hwang Theatre at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles

8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 13

Tickets: $28-$38

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Info: (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org

Victoria Moy is a New York-born, Los Angeles-based writer. She has a MFA from University of Southern California, where she studied playwriting, screenwriting and TV writing, 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.

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