In musical 'Supportive White Parents,' first-generation struggles get set to song

Wishing upon a star, the main character sees how her life would be different without the pressures from her Filipino parents.
Image: "Supportive White Parents," a comedy musical, with book and lyrics by Joy Regullano.
"Supportive White Parents," a comedy musical, with book and lyrics by Joy Regullano.Tina June

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By Agnes Constante

Joy, a Filipino American student at the University of California, Berkeley, wishes on a shooting star for supportive white parents when she feels pushed to the limit.

Just moments earlier, the main character of the musical “Supportive White Parents,” had told her Asian parents that she was switching her major from molecular biology to Southeast Asian studies — causing a major riff. They tell her she owes it to them to stick with studying biology because of everything they've sacrificed for her, including leaving their native Philippines to give their family a better life.

Joy’s wish is met, and the play unfolds with songs like “Utang Na Loob,” a Filipino phrase that translates to “debt of the heart” or “debt of gratitude,” and another titled “We Hug in This Family,” which explains how physical affection in Asian families is not as common as it can be in other cultures.

The musical is based on writer and actor Joy Regullano’s own life, and she’s been performing songs from it since September at The Second City comedy club in Hollywood. Growing up, she loved music, public speaking and making people laugh, but the plan was always for her to become a doctor like both of her parents and take over her dad's two clinics in East Los Angeles.

"Supportive White Parents," a comedy musical, with book and lyrics by Joy Regullano.Tina June

“It’s just kind of expected to help care for your parents and your family in Asian culture, so I just never thought I could really make a career [in theater],” she said. “You gotta do your filial duty and help out.”

She began pursuing the path to becoming a doctor by taking pre-med at UC Berkeley. But, as a straight-A student, when she got a B on her first math test, she concluded she wasn't going to make it as a doctor.

So she changed her major to theater.

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Her parents grieved the news of her major change and suggested she consider going into business school, pharmacy school, or a post-baccalaureate program, Regullano said. In the musical, her character later reveals that her dad didn’t speak to her for eight months after the news.

Her parents are slowly becoming more supportive of her career, she said, although she believes they’d welcome it if she suddenly decided to go to business school.

Given the tension at home over her decision, Regullano said she found herself wishing for the supportive parents her white classmates had.

“I was like, ‘Aw, man, if my parents would’ve encouraged this talent when I was a kid instead of making me play piano and violin, I would have been so far ahead in my craft,’” she said.

Regullano said she hopes “Supportive White Parents” will help audiences understand Filipino and Asian culture, and encourage them to think about parenting and acceptance.

“A lot of people don’t understand the weight or the debt we have to our parents. They don’t understand why it’s hard for us to live our own lives,” she said.

It's a concept she illustrates in a scene in the musical when her character learns that her parents didn't plan on becoming doctors, yet both of them ended up doing so for the greater good of their families. In one case, her grandfather’s decision to become a doctor saved her great uncle’s life, Joy’s mother emphasizes in the musical.

The musical also explores other cultural nuances through songs with lyrics written by Regullano. One song touches on the colonization of food in a Bollywood dance number that takes place in Whole Foods.

“Supportive White Parents” ran earlier this year at the Hollywood Fringe Festival where it won two awards and received a nomination for best musical. Its current run at The Second City ends Dec. 13, though Regullano would like to see it go off-Broadway or even on Broadway.

She notes the lack of Asian American stories and comedy musicals in mainstream theater, particularly by Filipino Americans. In the 2016-2017 Broadway season, Caucasian playwrights wrote 86.6 percent of all plays produced, according to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, and Asian Americans accounted for 7.3 percent of performers.

Angel Desai, one of the founding and steering committee members of the coalition, said in an email that the racial and ethnic makeup of casts onstage have not kept up with the rate at which the country has been diversifying. This can lead people to feel invisible within the larger cultural landscape, she added.

“Ms. Regullano's piece, and the way that it's cast, is an example of what the theatre needs more of — windows into the worlds of people whose voices have until recently been silenced,” she said.

While “Supportive White Parents” highlights the Filipino American experience, it's a production that Regullano said non-Filipinos will be able to relate to.

“I think anyone can relate to having parents. Anyone can relate to wanting their parents to love them and approve of them,” she said.

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