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The Forgotten Asian
Playwright Nicholas Pilapil continues to reflect on what it means to be Asian, Filipino and Queer. He also shares insights into his play "The Bottoming Process." Part 2 of 2.
My play The Bottoming Process ( which just played at the Renberg Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center in Hollywood) is an exploration of my relationship with my race and ethnicity. The play follows a twenty-something Filipino American essayist named Milo, who navigates a white supremacist world and negotiates who he is to fit into it. In this dark comedy, Milo’s deepest desires are to be seen as worthy and to be understood; and he writes essays on identity, love, and queerness as a means to signal to everyone, “Look at me! I am worthy!” But his desires poison his outlook, and ultimately he boxes himself into everything he’s fighting against.
Excerpt from The Bottoming Process
You always bundle us all together like an “Asian Oriental Existence” is a shared existence we all experience. I’m Korean. You’re Filipino. There’s a big difference. Big. Huge.
To me, it’s just easier to just be considered Asian. I write so people can, fingers crossed, read it someday. And so I cling on to what other people can understand about me: Gay and Asian.
In conversations around representation and equity, we often discuss how the institution of whiteness erases and keeps us down. But with my journey to self-discovery, I’ve learned that I contribute just as much erasure to myself as whiteness. I’ve been told all my life that those who are valuable, worthy, and beautiful are who entertainment media tells us they are—and they were all white, all perfect, and everything I never was or could ever be. I wanted to be those things. I desired those things. And it manifested itself in who I choose to fall in love with and, ultimately, how I categorize myself.
Like Milo, being Asian was enough for me. And it was probably because in the proximity to whiteness, being just Asian is closer to being white than being Filipino is. This self-colonization was my bottoming process. Writing this play forced me to look inward at myself and the intersection of all my identities: Asian, Filipino, and Queer. And having to compartmentalize them all for the sake of art helped me reclaim the one that felt the most foreign to me.
Almost three years ago, in an early workshop of The Bottoming Process, actor George Salazar—who plays Milo—asked me, “Why isn’t Milo Filipino?”
The impetus of this play was to dismantle Asian American stereotypes and how they are amplified within queer interracial romances. It never occurred to me to make the protagonist mirror my ethnicity. My initial intent was to write a universal play that all Asians could relate to, and more so, I didn’t feel I had the authority to write Milo as a Filipino or a Filipino play. But with the belief of our brilliant director Rodney To and the inspiration from George, I left my comfort zone and started writing with Filipino specificity. And I learned that outside of your comfort zone, magic happens.
The Bottoming Process began as a play about an Asian American who felt excluded from the world, but fast forward to today, and The Bottoming Process has become a play about a Filipino American’s journey to self-discovery, finding their voice, and learning to come out on top when facing uncomfortable truths. Writing this play helped me unlearn engrained white supremacist behavior that had unconsciously been brewing in me. It helped break down walls I’d built up inside myself that hid other parts of myself away. Writing “The Bottoming Process” helped me claim my Filipinoness. I may not speak Tagalog or may not have grown-up more culturally Filipino than some, but writing this play helped me take ownership of being Filipino anyways.
I’ve written two more plays since “The Bottoming Process,” and each gets more unapologetically Filipino than the next. My play “if all that You take from this is courage, then I’ve no regrets” follows a Filipino grandmother and grandson as they bond over history, sacrifice, and surviving adversity. The play featured the likes of Lydia Gaston and G. Tongi and won the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival. And my most recent play, “God Will Do The Rest” is an expansive drama that exposes the complicated ways Filipino Americans grapple with their love and duty to family. The play was accepted into the Geffen Playhouse’s prestigious The Writers’ Room new play development program and most recently had a sold-out staged reading starring Jon Jon Briones, Ellen D. Williams, and Timothy Granaderos.
Early in my theatre career, I used producing as my tool for activism. But playwriting has become my tool for self-discovery. Today every play I write helps me get closer to my Filipino heritage and culture. Each play gives me a reason to ask questions from my grandmother, pick up a book about the Philippines, engage more Filipino collaborators, and write out all the ways I am Filipino and all the ways I wish I could be more Filipino.
A goal for my playwriting was to unfailingly cast a wide net and entertain the most people. But I was never successful in reaching people with my wide net. Because of The Bottoming Process, and the plays that came after, I learned the more specific I got with my writing, the more universal my voice became. When I became more myself and let more of myself live on the page, the more people saw themselves in my work. After each performance of The Bottoming Process, I talk to many audience members—of a diversity of backgrounds and identities—and how they see themselves in Milo, the play, and me. I’ve learned that people relate to the truth and that telling the truth is a universal language.
I’ve spent much time letting everything and everyone else define me and dictate who I am. And I’ve spent most of my life believing it and allowing it to make me feel invisible. Again, can we really be seen if we can’t even define where we land? Through theatre and playwriting, I’ve realized that I don’t need to be defined. Because what defines me aren’t facts or stereotypes or even 16th-century colonization. What defines me, if anything, is my story—and if I want to stop feeling invisible and I want Filipinos to be more than the “Forgotten Asian,” then I have to tell more of it.
About the Author:
Nicholas Pilapil is a Filipino American playwright. His plays include The Bottoming Process (world premiere IAMA Theatre Company, Victory Gardens' Ignition Festival of New Plays) and if all that You take from this is courage, then I've no regrets (winner of the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival). His plays have also been developed with Geffen Playhouse, Artists at Play, Playwrights Foundation, American Stage, Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA, and The Workshop Theater, among others. His work is published by Samuel French, Smith & Kraus, and his collection of monologues, Other Monologues, is a winner of The Astringent Award and published by Astringent Press. Read more from Nicholas on his Substack My Ugly Mouth. nicholaspilapil.com