To many in the United States, the Philippines remain an indistinct collection of tropical islands: exotic, agricultural and beset with frequent political upheaval. The country's recent history might seem to begin and end with martial law and Imelda Marcos' shoe collection.
Yet to poet-novelist Jessica Hagedorn, the island republic where she was born is also a place with important ties to America. "I think the connection to the United States is so intense," says the petite, 49-year-old writer. "There's a lot there for people living here to get. It's not just a faraway place. Although I live here now, that's my other home in my head. I don't divorce myself from it."
Hagedorn's feelings about the widespread misapprehension of her native land have long been intense. "All my life I thought I'm going to write about the way I see it, when I'm ready," says the New York-based author, as she sits curled up on a green-room couch at the La Jolla Playhouse, where a dramatic adaptation of her 1990 novel "Dogeaters" premieres tonight, staged by artistic director Michael Greif.
"I felt like the novels that were set in the Philippines didn't do it justice," she says. "I wanted to capture the vitality there, and the explosiveness and the humor, and the really deep, wacky [stuff] that goes on there that nobody seems to get."
'Dogeaters" is the first La Jolla Playhouse commission to reach the boards in seven years, and the only one so far during Greif's tenure, which began in 1995.
Set during the 1950s and '80s in the Philippines, the panoramic drama utilizes a cast of 15 actors playing 25 characters to portray the effects of American pop culture on the islands. The tale is told from the point of view of a girl named Rio Gonzaga (played by Sandra Oh)--both at age 13 in 1959, and as an adult in the turbulent years of the Marcos regime. Hagedorn also depicts an array of colorful characters, including a club owner-drag queen (Alec Mapa), a beauty queen (Tess Lina) and a young junkie (Seth Gilliam).
The novel, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1990 and has since been translated into several languages, is nonlinear and was not easy to adapt for the stage. Indeed, Hagedorn's task in adapting the work--which details how many lives are changed by an assassination--consisted largely of paring down the story and concocting characters and plot lines.
Fortunately, she wasn't shy about the task. "The book was a great source for me, but I didn't feel reverent about letting things go, or adding things that weren't even in the book," the author says. "That's the fun part. You can sort of keep writing the book, or rewriting it. I wanted to try and push the envelope, not just with the story, but also in how we presented it."
While common theatrical wisdom warns against having writers adapt their own works (lest they feel too close to the material), Hagedorn proved sufficiently ruthless. "Jessica had very definitive notions of what she wanted to focus on," Greif says. "She presented me with a very clear plan of which characters she would focus on and which chapters would be eliminated, and that helped me steer her."
Although not directly biographical, both novel and play are clearly informed by Hagedorn's own experience of the Philippines.
Leaving the islands at the age of 14, she moved with her mother and brothers to California. They landed first in San Diego, and soon thereafter in San Francisco, where Hagedorn was to spend the rest of her teen and early adult years.
In the 1970s, Hagedorn followed her muse to New York, where she slid easily into the heady creative beehive of the downtown arts scene. "I loved performing and all that, in theater and dance," she recalls. "But in my heart the basic thing was that I would write, and poetry was my foundation. I also thought that one day I was going to try and write this novel."
During the 1980s, her reputation as a writer began to grow, thanks in large part to her poetry and short fiction, which were published in a number of anthologies. Hagedorn also continued working in the performing arts, writing several multimedia theater pieces and singing and writing for a rock band "for 10 years, off and on."
Hagedorn declines to talk about her personal life, but she does say that when the first of her two daughters was born in 1983, she began to direct her efforts more narrowly. "When my daughter was born, I thought, now's the time to focus on something," she says. "That novel was haunting me, and I let all those other things fall by the wayside."
Encouraged by the fact that the Philippines were much in the news at the time, Hagedorn spent several years in the mid-1980s completing her manuscript. By the time she'd finished a first draft, much of America had become aware of the stormy Marcos regime.
In 1988, with a rough version of "Dogeaters" in hand, Hagedorn returned to her homeland. "I went back for four months, to see if what I'd written smelled right and I had done my homework," she says. "I ended up adding all this stuff."
Shortly after the novel was published by Pantheon in 1990, Hagedorn first met Greif. Both were serving as artistic associates at the Public Theater in Manhattan at the time, and getting to know the writer inspired the director to read her book.
"The novel was very dramatic and very theatrical," Greif says. "Among the things that were most fascinating to me were the ways in which political enemies were also closely associated. I found that complicity fascinating and true. The book is also filled with incredible humor, heart and generosity of experience."
A few years after he first read the work, Greif suggested to Hagedorn that she turn it into a play. "He asked me if I was interested in adapting it, or seeing it adapted, as a play, which took me completely by surprise," she says. "I had always seen it as a film. I just thought it was too epic and dense and difficult for the stage.
"I was very resistant, but happily, he persisted," says Hagedorn, who also edited the 1993 compilation "Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian-American Fiction." "I decided, what the heck, it's a great opportunity. But if anybody was going to do it, it would have to be me. I just couldn't see giving it up to another writer."
Hagedorn began working on the script in 1996, using what ended up being a comparatively filmic approach after all. "I was thinking of what the visuals would be," she says. "That comes to me first: images. And I saw a stage full of sleeping bodies. The whole nation was asleep."
"Even though we don't have a stage full of sleeping bodies that opens the play now, that image helped me set the tone," she says. "I wanted to have a certain style: real and dreamlike at the same time."
The script was developed at last year's Sundance Theatre Lab and subsequently in a series of readings in New York, Los Angeles and Costa Mesa. Hagedorn also used a residency in early 1998 in the UC San Diego literature department to continue her work with Greif.
Ultimately, translating her work from the page to the stage turned out to be something of a creative revelation for the author, whose most recent novel, "The Gangster of Love," centers on a single-parent Filipino family living in San Francisco in the 1970s.
"I'm into trying everything once," Hagedorn says. "I didn't have a clear notion of what this whole process would be about, but I knew it was going to be a profound experience for me. I knew it would be another struggle with myself and rediscovering what this book is really about, finding all the layers."
"DOGEATERS," La Jolla Playhouse, UC San Diego, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla. Dates: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 11. Prices: $21-$39. Phone: (619) 550-1010.