The women-led and women-centric play, Export Quality, recently had its run as part of the programming at HERE – a theater that produces multidisciplinary theater performances in the heart of New York City’s Soho district. The play reveals strong warnings on the dangers of the international mail-order bride industry, whilst infusing its characters and their backstories with Filipino culture.
Written by Erica Miguel, Carolyn Antonio, and Dorotea Mendoza, the piece is based on true stories and presents the complex experiences behind four mail-order brides from the Philippines. Export Quality is directed by Sonoko Kawhara and stars Myka Cue (Regional: Sweeney Todd), Cat Grey (Off-Broadway: The Little Dancer), Jill Jose (Film: Birder), and Arianne Recto (The Public’s Hercules, As You Like It).
In the words of the writers, the play “sheds light on the untold stories of resilience, sacrifice, and empowerment… [the play] delves into questions of gender inequality, stereotypes, and the lingering impacts of colonialism. Through the lens of true stories, we aim to provoke contemplation on the power dynamics at play and ultimately bear witness to the indomitable spirit of women, their courage, and the healing power of community and storytelling.”
Director Sonoko Kawhara, who grew up in Japan, said she was familiar with the mail-order bride system because it exists in Japan even now: “In Japan, we have both sides: women who register as brides and men who seek brides from other countries, mostly from Asia.”
Director Sonoko Kawhara wanted to be a part of this project to help dispel some of the assumptions and prejudices that are made about Asian women.
She wanted to be a part of this project to help dispel some of the assumptions and prejudices that are made about Asian women. In the earlier drafts of the script, she noted that the ending was “pleasant, full of hope and wishful thinking.” However, she wanted to “confront the harsh reality at the core of the issue directly, without sugarcoating the… severity of the situation.” Before joining the production, she discussed her ideas with the writers, who agreed with her suggestions. The play does not have a happy ending, but it is indeed one that confronts the dangers of the industry.
All the actors were of Filipino heritage, with Myka Cue having most recently lived in the country. “I think what surprised me as well was realizing how dangerous some Filipino guiding beliefs can be, especially within this particular context. The concept of ‘utang na loob’ or ‘debt of gratitude,’ for example, can be really harmful for these characters — to believe that because their husbands brought them to the United States for a ‘better’ life, these women are forever indebted to them.” She grew up with this saying, and although she agrees that the importance of gratitude is a beautiful notion, “it gets dangerous when that comes at the cost of an individual’s own happiness and freedom.”
When thinking about this industry, director Sonoko had many questions in mind: “how does it work, is it a form of sex trafficking, is it similar to a dating app, is it happening today, and notably, isn’t it the woman’s choice?” She incorporated all of them and perceived the last question as the crux of the play. The play utilizes many tools to address the different perspectives through which the industry’s relationship is tied to Filipino culture. There are scenes where the brides participate in a game show set in some otherworldly space. There are also times when the actors pick up a camera and film each other with the live video being projected on a metal-fenced wall behind them.
Sonoko wanted to not only explore and educate the audience about the mail-order bride system, but to also explore the Filipino public’s fascination with wealth. “It’s not about greed; it’s about a dream.” She rejected the idea that the brides were solely victims of an oppressive system. Instead, she wanted the audience to contemplate it.
Export Quality did a very good job with weaving in elements of Filipino culture, and this was born out of its very collaborative process and the cultural environment created during rehearsals.
Export Quality did a very good job with weaving in elements of Filipino culture, and this was born out of its very collaborative process and the cultural environment created during rehearsals. Sonoko explained that although she’s not well-versed in the Philippines’ culture, as an immigrant, she understands the sense of a culture not being fully understood. She emphasized the importance of asking for guidance: “maintaining curiosity is my responsibility as a director and my way of showing respect.”
Since the play touched upon many sensitive matters, Sonoko believed it was crucial to establish a safe environment for everyone to freely express themselves. During rehearsals, “all the women engaged in an open dialogue encompassing sexual discrimination, violence, and individual perspectives as women, minorities, or majorities.” As a result, “everyone [felt] a sense of ownership over the work,” and addressing the sensitive issues became a shared mission.
Actor Myka described the rehearsal room as “incredibly warm and kind,” and filled with gratitude. “Finally a play that centered on Filipino women!”
She said that the writers (all women) were very open to the actors’ ideas and willing to make adjustments. “Everyone carried this deep curiosity and an openness to explore…we also trusted each other pretty much immediately, despite having never worked with each other before. I think that’s so rare… I believe that the kind of care in a women-led and women-centered space is unmatched.”
The importance of creating art about different cultures must not be understated.
Myka described how one night after coming out of the dressing room, the actors were all greeted by a group of Filipino aunties who had come all the way from Massachusetts to see the show. “They took a trip as a friend group to watch the performance. We took photos and chatted a bit about how long we’ve been in the US and things we miss about the Philippines. That was a really special moment of connection.”
The importance of creating art about different cultures must not be understated. It educates, informs, and brings to light topics involving other cultures that would otherwise go unknown.
“I was astonished when actors, with a decade-long career, expressed that it was their first time playing an Asian role or being in a position to portray themselves authentically. Previously, there seemed to be a mutual sense… that assimilating and being recognized as part of the majority culture was a form of success and a goal. I think even today many people still believe in it. Now, I believe instead of striving to erase racial differences for assimilation, we should embrace and empower our identities, supporting each other on an equal platform. I aspire to contribute to fostering this change,” shared Kawhara.
“The more I shared parts of my culture, the deeper my appreciation and love for my country/identity grew. In my nine years of pursuing acting in the United States, this is the first time I played a Filipino woman onstage, so the gratitude was beyond words,” said Cue. “I’d be in the room and hear a reference to something very Filipino and I’d think to myself, I know what that is, I feel seen. There’s something about that that’s pretty magical. When you get to identify yourself in a story, in a piece of writing, and share it with someone.”
© Katusha Jin (1/11/24) — Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Check out details of the entire cast and crew here.
Check out more of HERE’s programs here.
See Bea Viri’s AAPI month book recommendations here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Actors Jill Jose, Cat Grey, Myka Cue and Arianne Recto in Export Quality. Photo Credit: Loose Change Production
Middle Photo: Jill Jose in Export Quality. Photo Credit: Loose Change Production
Bottom Photo: Export Quality marquee at HERE Arts NY. Photo Credit: Katusha Jin