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Danny Bernardo explores cultural authenticity for Filipino-Americans in his new play, “Mahal”

Danny Bernardo

Danny Bernardo

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I’ve wanted a life in the arts ever since I was a kid. Growing up in LA, I was lucky enough to land an agent who sent me out for auditions, despite the lack of diversity inherent in the industry. I didn’t know anything about my race at the time; I was just a kid doing what I loved.

But one day, after working my tail off for an audition that I didn’t book, I asked my agent why I hadn’t gotten the part. “They wanted to cast a kid who looked like the mom,” she replied simply. And for the first time, at the age of 10, it struck me: I was different. It wasn’t until I was in a casting director’s waiting room, surrounded by kids who looked like me, that I found a word for it by sneaking a peek at the breakdown: Asian.

Years later, I can proudly say that as a Filipino-American theater artist, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve played non-Asian roles as often as I’ve played Asian roles. So it was a harsh reminder when established companies La Jolla Playhouse and Royal Shakespeare Company recently cast predominantly Caucasian productions of shows set in China (“The Nightingale” and “The Orphan of Zao,” respectively).

This controversy opened up a conversation about cultural authenticity in theater, specifically as it relates to Asian culture. Maybe that’s why it’s such a novel concept that I wrote my play, “Mahal,” about a family of Filipino-Americans — and cast Filipino-American actors.

I never meant “Mahal” to be a play about cultural conversation. What I’d really set out to do two years ago was to write a play for my dad, who had just passed away. He’d had his own version of the American Dream that he never saw fulfilled, and I’d be damned if I was going to let his legacy go all “Willy Loman” from “Death of a Salesman.”

So I wrote. I wrote about my family, and about the culture I was born into, both Filipino and American. And once Bailiwick Chicago began producing the play, I found it cathartic to get to work with actors who were able to work from the inside out for the first time.

It’s humbling when Filipino-Americans thank me after the show for telling their story. It’s indescribably satisfying when non-Filipino audiences remark on how universal the story is. And it’s puzzling when people remark on how surprised they are that “the family seems so American!” It’s what people have come to expect, I suppose. In a world of hyphenates, people tend to forget the “American” part of “Asian-American. It’s odd, since so many of us have spent most of our lives making the latter more apparent.

But it’s not a coincidence that once I embraced what made me “different,” I came up with a story that people wanted to see, a story that they saw themselves in. We live in a very inspiring time, one where people want to see pieces that are true to the culture they come from. Though we’ve still got a long way to go, every day we get a little bit closer to cultural authenticity for all.

“Mahal” is playing through Aug. 2 at Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont). For tickets ($35), visit Stage773.com or the box office.



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