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Is Your Theater’s Commitment to Diversity Real, or Realistic? (Written by Eric “Pogi” Sumangil)

This post originally appeared on Eric “Pogi” Sumangil’s personal blog, Sumangil plays John Jones in The Realistic Joneses, on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage until October 16.

Tuyo is a fish dish in the Philippines. Also, Filipinos really like puns.

Tuyo is a fish dish in the Philippines. Also, Filipinos really like puns.

This may not look like much, but it actually means a lot to me. This is one of my costumes for The Realistic Joneses at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota.

It started with a graphic t-shirt that the costume designer picked up at a thrift store. It was army green with a picture of a bicycle and some katakana writing underneath. But most of our set is also green, so the costume designer and director decided to look for a shirt in a different color. Something in a red or maroon. And, since they were already going to make a change, according to the costume designer, the director asked, “Can we make it a Filipino shirt?” The next day, the costume designer came into our dressing room with a few designs on a website pulled up on his laptop. They could have, just as easily, gone back to the thrift store and found the right color and size. They could have saved money instead of ordering a newly printed shirt online. But they made a choice, albeit a simple one, but a choice that acknowledges and honors my culture, and I’m grateful for that.

In my career I’ve played my fair share of Asian characters. And while I continue to believe in the importance of roles that are written by and for artists of Asian descent, I especially appreciate the rare opportunities when I get to play roles that make no mention of my race; roles that reinforce the notion that my face is an American face, that my experience is an American experience. As Asian American representation on stage and screen has been a topic of much discussion over the last few years, I feel strongly that it’s important to challenge audiences to see us in a strictly American context. Not foreign, or even foreign-born immigrants, but as Americans whose ethnicity has been on North American soil since 1587.

Good plays that have specific roles for Asian Americans, or Filipino Americans, are already pretty rare in the grand scheme of things. But here’s something even more rare: To have a director and costume designer make a choice to acknowledge your heritage even when it’s not called for in the script. There are plenty of plays out there that make no mention of race or ethnicity, but more often than not, people casting those shows make the easier (perhaps lazier) choice to cast white actors, furthering this notion that whiteness is “normal” and other ethnicities are varying deviations from the norm. When I’m onstage, my culture usually exists in a binary; it’s either essential to the story or completely nonexistent. So to know that my culture is not ignored in the world of this play is an example of a true commitment to diversity. Not only am I the first person of color to play John Jones in The Realistic Joneses (fact checkers, please advise!), but in our production the character is Filipino American, too.

Too often, well meaning people say things like, “I don’t see color,” or “I don’t see your race,” or “We’re all just humans…” and the only thing I can think is that if you’re not seeing my culture, you’re not seeing some essential things about my life and my experience. Also, I’d be less inclined to cook for you, so it’s you who’ll be missing out, not me.

Thank you to Director Joel Sass and Costume Designer Cole Bylander for their thoughtfulness, and to everyone at Park Square Theatre for their commitment to diversity onstage and backstage.

The Realistic Joneses: Featuring Eric “Pogi” Sumangil

As part of our ongoing Meet the Cast of The Realistic Joneses Blog Series, let us introduce you to Eric “Pogi” Sumangil:


ROLE: John Jones, husband of Pony Jones, late 30s-40s


When Eric accepted the role of John Jones, I joked that it only took 15 years for us to get a chance to do a show together. I’m so glad it’s finally happening! I first met Eric at an audition when we were both quite new to town and have always enjoyed his auditions and seeing him onstage in other productions. The character of John Jones is a great one: he’s rather zany, a bit of a trickster and the most peculiar, yet charming, guy in the neighborhood. But he’s in the grip of an incredible crisis, a curve-ball life has thrown at him, and discovering what that is all about is one of the great discoveries for the audience.


In the play, John is very deadpan funny but actually quite often serious about what he’s saying.  What challenges you in playing him?

One of the things I’m bringing to the role of John is that I think I’m the first person of color to play the role. That doesn’t necessarily make it more challenging by any means, but it’s something I’m aware of as an actor. John and Pony in our production are an interracial couple, so I’m curious to see if or how that might affect things as the story unfolds.

Truth be told, I actually have a pretty dry sense of humor like John–people sometimes don’t know if/when I’m joking. I’m a fan of comedy, and there are some great dry/deadpan comedians out there, from the classic deadpan of Buster Keaton to Bill Murray and Stephen Wright in the 80s on down.

There’s a great standup comic named Tig Notaro who had a famous set that was recorded just a few days after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Around that time, her mother suddenly passed away. Tig had also gone through a bad breakup and almost died herself from C.diff, an intestinal infection, all in a matter of a couple months. So she gets up on stage days after being told she has cancer and just starts talking about it. Talking about her pain through comedy. And it’s amazing and honest and vulnerable and smart and dry and cathartic. And that’s what I think is the challenge of playing John; I think there are moments where his sense of humor might be hiding something; but more importantly, I think comedy is his way of trying to connect and be understood and find some catharsis.

Comedy is a powerful thing. The court jester was the only person who could openly criticize the monarchy without losing his head (if he was funny enough). You can speak great truths through comedy, and that’s what’s interesting and tricky about John. He often plays with the idea of what you’re supposed to say in particular situations, so it’s almost like he’s satirizing on his feet. I know people who are great improv and sketch comedians, but I’ve never considered myself quick-witted enough to be that kind of funny.

I worked for years doing sexual assault prevention, and our presentation was created in part by a former standup comic who actually got her doctorate studying how humor affects one’s willingness to talk about taboo topics. So we learned to use humor strategically while talking about something that was really serious.

There’s a comedy term called the way homer; it’s a joke that you don’t laugh at until you’re thinking about it on the way home. Using comedy to talk about really serious topics is sometimes like that; you get the audience to laugh initially, but you’re really planting the seed of something they’ll think about later. It’s a tightrope to be sure, but I’m definitely up for the challenge.


Park Square Debut Representative Theatre Mu Performing Arts: tot: The Untold Yet Spectacular Story of (a Filipino) Hulk Hogan; La Jolla Playhouse: The Seven; Children’s Theatre Company: The Monkey King; Chanhassen Dinner Theatres: Altar Boyz; Mixed Blood Theatre: Bill of (W)rights; Frank Theatre: The Cradle Will Rock Training B.A., Communication; B.A., Asian Studies, St. John’s University; The Actors Workout Awards/Other Many Voices Fellow 2009-’10, ‘10-’11, Playwrights’ Center; 2002 Fil-Minnesotan Association Excellence in the Arts Award Upcoming Projects Jungle Theater: The Oldest Boy

 The Realistic Joneses – Area Premiere – Andy Boss Thrust Stage – September 23 to October 16

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