“Balikbayan Box” Delivers the Steps to Love—at TheatreFirst
Jeffrey Lo Highlights Struggles of Filipino Immigrants in America
by Patricia L. Morin
Playwright Jeffrey Lo takes us on the touching journey of a young couple who clash over traditional Filipino values when they meet American demands.
Filipino families in America send a shipping box, the “Balikbayan Box,” full of food and gifts, to their struggling relatives back home. The family is the mainstay of Filipino culture, and their boxes fuse two worlds, an umbilical cord to home.
But often, Americans unlike the Filipinos, are focused on separating from their roots. They adopt slogans like: “Be independent.” “Be an Individual.” “You’re on your own.” Some U.S. born off-spring do not wish to return to their childhood homes.
New-world America and old-world Philippines collide when shy Joseph (independent Jed Parsario), chef and co-owner of a fusion restaurant called “Flip Side,” agrees to marry newly arrived, affable Bethany (straightforward Lynie Abadilla). An ex-school teacher, she needs her green card to send money back home to help her sick mother.
We meet them sitting on boxes reading from their journals. They reveal thoughts about each other in journals meant for immigration officials. Despite the deception, their loving, lyrical words impress us.
Bethany excitedly opens a bulky Balikbayan box with gifts: a plethora of dried mangos, intended as thanks to Joseph. He accepts the gift, tagged with many names of her relatives, with little enthusiasm. Bethany soon realizes that what she was told about Joseph was not all true.
Designer Jon Tracy sets the perfect atmosphere with a cozy living room and modern kitchen highlighted by a background of labeled, corrugated boxes. He reminds us of the fusion of two culture symbolized by those Balikbayan boxes.
We walk through every mundane step with them, from their first moments of meeting, to their discussion of separate rooms, to their animated conversations with relatives back home.
As they talk about childhood Filipino meals, they slowly draw closer. As Joseph asserts, “There is a limited amount of meals before we die. They may as well all be good.”
They dream different dreams. Bethany wonders why Americans do not socialize. Joseph aches to cook more real Filipino food, but fears trying it at his Americanized restaurant.
Bethany believes that movies mirror “why we live our life.” She wants to go out, to see exotic Milpitas! Joseph just works and sleeps. He’s so Americanized that he creates “Loempia Tacos” for his restaurant.
We wonder: Can they merge old and new Filipino cultures? Can they even get along?
The pace slows when Joseph reveals a dark secret—and a well-known scenario unfolds. His past life of partying catches up with him, and an even darker story is uncovered. Director Michelle Talgarow choreographs the character’ fluid movement, heightening their differences, as the two actors inhabit their roles with natural grace and feeling.
I would recommend this play for a youthful, multicultural audience. Bethany and Joseph embody a new immigrant’s and an Americanized immigrant’s point of view. She is loyal to her family and past; while he seems isolated and selfish.
Jeffrey Lo shows how relationships can bloom, and how two radically different people can find the meaning of home in each other.
“Balikbayan Box” by Jeffrey Lo, directed by Michelle Talgarow, by TheatreFirst, at Live Oak Theater, Berkeley. Info: TheatreFirst.com – to June 12, 2022.
Cast: Lynie Abadilla and Jed Parsario.