David Byrne’s new Broadway musical, “Here Lies Love” (HLL), pays homage to former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, tracing her journey from a young girl to a political behemoth with slippery, soapy pulp fiction. Once you accept that as an audience member, it is easier to indulge the bombastic fantasy of Helen of Troy by way of Tacloban, Philippines. Since its genesis as a concept album in 2010, writer and creator Byrne has been mesmerized by Imelda, the former wife of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. and mother of the current president, Ferdinand, Jr. An absolute stunner, Imelda continues to captivate as the blue ribbon champion of fascist pigs, a convicted human rights criminal, grifter, liable for murder, and political monster. Imelda is the queen of shadow power at Malacañang Palace.
If the show were an “unequivocal condemnation of the Marcos regime,” as the director Alex Timbers has declared, then why all the gimmicks? From the immersive theater experience to the over-enunciation of an all-Filipino cast and recruitment of high-profile Filipino producers, the creative team keeps trying to distance itself from the most apparent fact of the show – it glamorizes fascism and its most pervasive agent, Imelda, who is the matriarchal life force of the Marcos machine for generations. Do you know what else is an all-Filipino cast with some White-boy engineers from the United States? The Philippines government, both past and present.
During the show’s presser in August 2023, broadway darling, show producer, and pioneer Lea Salonga commented, “We are just so good at assimilating.” On CBS Mornings, veteran actor Jose Llana, who plays Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., echoed this sentiment. How do you announce to the world that “Filipinos are the masters of assimilation” while standing neck-deep in the blood sacrifice of the 1986 People Power Revolution? As a first-generation Filipina-American born and raised in New York during Marcos’ martial law, I am one of the many diasporic children grumbling in the belly of the beast. Maybe HLL’s cast and the monied caste of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans flocking to see the show excel at approximating whiteness on the Great White Way. But I reject that characterization of Filipinos because it is a dangerous, ahistorical fallacy.
Let me make the correction plain: The People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986, also known among Pinoys as EDSA, is one of the most important uprisings in contemporary global history. Akin to how the Haitian revolution dismantled the trans-Atlantic enslavement system, EDSA set the template for overthrowing dictatorial governments in Asia and beyond. Since 1986, the political will of the Filipino people has unseated corrupt presidents an additional two more times, EDSA II and III in 2001. And while it may be a Western compulsion to attribute that radical worldmaking to that pretty lady who can sing, revolution always and forever will belong to the masa, the mass of everyday people. In the HLL production, the people, like the audience, are consistently displaced to the margins. The Filipinx people are the non-speaking parts, the flashes of text on the wall, supplemental videos and footnotes, not the actors of history. Only the politicians and Imelda’s former bestie have names.
Colonization demands the consent of natives by coercion and force. Assimilation comes at the cost of lives, languages, identity, and imagination. This play sets us back at least 119 years to 1904 when the St. Louis World’s Fair put dancing Filipinos on display for American spectators, mimicking a human zoo. After the Philippines became a United States territory following the Philippine-American War that claimed over 250,000 Filipino lives, the live exhibit at the World’s Fair was meant to show off the new territory and justify the occupation. The recent interactive essay in the Washington Post, “Searching for Maura,” by Claire Healy and Nicole Dungca, illustrated by Ren Galeno, narrates Janna Anonuevo Langholz’s research on the injustices performed against the Indigenous Filipino performers, some of whose brain samples remain in captivity at the Smithsonian Museum. We lost our actual minds to America by theft, not by adaptation.
In the bar lobby area before entering the Club Millenium, David Byrne exhibits his photographs from a visit to the Santo Nino Shrine Heritage Museum, colloquially called the Imelda Marcos Museum, in Tacloban, Philippines. One laminated card reads, “Imelda’s Diorama 11: Servant of the Poor, Late 1970s, Imelda makes a visit to the common people.” Presented as original artworks, Byrne’s framed prints are no different from any other tourist photos, which depict the careful narrative that the Marcos’ propaganda machine has constructed for the broader public. Not unlike the show at large, the audience is invited to engage in an interlocutor’s perception of history without any discernment between fact and fiction, because they are presented as the same.
But don’t worry, I fixed it with a pretty brown bird. If you have a middle finger or two when you witness this spectacle, you can do it too! Immersive theater encourages, if not demands, audience participation. At the end of the show, use your other digits to make the letter L for laban ko, a battle cry of the masa. Because the fight continues, same as it ever was.