BWW Interview: Ralph B. Peña, Artistic Director of Ma-Yi, Talks Diversity, Faith, and New Production FELIX STARRO
Ralph B. Peña is no stranger to success. A founding member of Ma-Yi Theater Company, Peña has been their Producing Artistic Director since 1995 and has driven the company to become the country's leading force behind the creation of new plays by Asian American Playwrights. With decades of directing under his belt, Peña's work has led Ma-Yi to numerous awards, including nine Obie Awards, the Off-Broadway Alliance Award, nine Drama Desk nominations and much more.
Ma-Yi's newest production Felix Starro, which Peña is currently directing Off-Broadway at Theatre Row is making an impact on both audience members and the history books as it marks the first time a musical created by Filipino-Americans will be presented Off-Broadway.
Peña took the time to chat with BroadwayWorld about the upcoming production.
What has the developmental process of this show been like to get it to Off-Broadway?
With new works, every journey to production is a different story. Felix Starro took five years to get from first draft to first preview. Part of the challenge was the task of adapting the short story for the stage. That's what writer Jessica Hagedorn and composer Fabian Obispo spent most of their time focused on, and why we needed this protracted process to make sure we were all on the same page about how to tell this story, which is based on a short story by Lysley Tenorio. The other aspect that drives development is money. Ma-Yi Theater did all of it on its own steam, and for a small non-profit, it means making sure there were enough resources to give justice to the work of all the creatives.
How has it been developing this show alongside a company like Theatre Row that promotes and encourages diverse art for diverse audiences?
It's certainly a plus to have a partner that's committed to diversity. I've had my share of theater folks who only give this lip service, and very early on, Theatre Row reached out to Ma-Yi to talk about how me can fit into their vision for inclusive Theater. That's really nice.
This show marks the very first time that a musical created by Filipino-Americans will open Off-Broadway. What does this achievement mean to the cast, creatives and crew as well as yourself?
I've been at this for some time, 30 years with Ma-Yi Theater alone, so Felix Starro feels a part of an unbroken thread of struggles, activism, and many failures. We don't get to do many musicals, so in that sense, this is certainly a milestone. As far as being the first Off-Broadway musical created by Filipino Americans, the label seems both a banner of achievement, and a reminder to the field of how much work is still needed, and the importance of giving artists of color agency in telling their own stories.
Felix Starro is a story that explores what it means to be an undocumented immigrant in America, which is something that is very relevant to today's society. Have there been any challenges to remain culturally and socially sensitive while still confronting the status quo?
When it comes to racism and bigotry, I'm not terribly sensitive about calling it out. I do recognize that there are many shades to this issue, and I'm not quick to use the "R" word, but when our own leader makes no apologies for his hateful rhetoric against immigrants, then I feel that my principal job as an artist is to help combat that kind of thinking. What makes Felix Starro unique and especially challenging is how it marries the immigrant story with faith. Those are the story's two principal threads which I think holds true for many immigrants coming to this country from predominantly Catholic countries. The promise of the United States requires an abiding faith in its ability to make room for dreams. That's what draws people to come here.
Given the subject matter of the show and its relevance, what do you hope audience members will take away or learn from it?
I hope it spurs more conversations about immigration, and faith. I also want to look at the hypocrisy of Christians who are rabidly anti-immigrant, and how that comports with the ideals of their religion. I also hope to make clear that stories about communities of color, by artists of color, have a place on the legitimate American stage.
This show marks the 30th Anniversary of Ma-Yi. How do you think Felix Starro applies to the company's mission statement?
Our central mission is to bring new stories to the stage that challenge how audiences look at culturally specific work. I think Felix Starro lives up to that by giving Filipino Americans the chance to tell stories peopled by complex, flawed characters. In short, real people.
What has been the best part of working with Ma-Yi?
Ma-Yi has been my family since I moved to New York. I started out as an actor and was reluctantly given the role of Artistic Director in 1995. I said I would do it only for a year or so, but 24 years later, I'm still here. Looking back, I don't see how I could survive New York City without having Ma-Yi as my artistic home.
Felix Starro is currently playing Off-Broadway at Theatre Row until September 15. For tickets and more information visit ma-yitheatre.org/shows/felix-starro.
Production Photo Credit: Richard Termine