A look back: Nick Joaquin’s N.Y. ‘Portrait’ in 1997

Ken Leung as Bitoy in 1997 Ma-Yi production

By Tony Joaquin

Nick Joaquin loved to read The New Yorker magazine and even imitated Broadway musicals that featured Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Nick would have enjoyed New York City — Manhattan particularly.

But when he was awarded a travel grant by the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, he had no time but just a brief stopover at the La Guardia Airport en route to Europe. Little did he foresee that his play “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino” would one day play in Manhattan.

“Portrait” was staged at the off-Broadway Vineyard Dimson Theatre from July 26 to August 16, 1997, coming on the heels of his 1996 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts. It was a production by Ma-Yi Theatre Company, an Asian American theater essemble founded in 1989 by Filipino stage artists the likes of Ralph Pena, Chris Millado and Chito Jao Garces.

The Times’s critic Anita Gates gave “Portrait” a thumbs-up, calling it an “engaging, well plotted metaphor for the passing of Old Manila, intelligently directed by Jorge V. Ledesma.”

The story revolves around two spinster sisters – Candida and Paula Marasigan — unsure of what to do with a new painting by their artist-father. The period is post-war, and the Philippine economy is in ruins. The family needs to sell the painting to survive the lean years, but the stubborn father refuses to hand it over for money. Two male characters enhance the family conflict when Paula elopes with Tony, and a family friend, Bitoy, shows an inordinate interest in the portrait.

Bitoy was played in the Ma-Yi production by Chinese American actor Ken Leung, at one time a regular on “Law & Order” and “The Sopranos.”

The young Nick Joaquin

“Portrait” was written sometime around 1950 upon the urgings of Sarah Joaquin, his sister-in-law married to Porfirio “Ping” Joaquin, Nick’s eldest jazz pianist brother. Sarah and Ping are my parents.

Nick passed away without seeing how “Portrait” was portrayed in New York, a city he desired to know but never fully explored. He died of cardiac arrest in the early morning of April 29, 2004, at his home in San Juan, Metro Manila, widely hailed as the greatest Filipino writer of his generation.

Tony Joaquin was a television producer, director, newspaper journalist, industrial trainer and soap opera actor in the Philippines. He still gets excited by new ideas, films, love and living. He is 81.

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