In a dim theater, Kilusan Bautista straddles the two hemispheres doing battle in his head. Behind him, childhood scenes flash by like a schizoid film reel: a swaying native puppet silhouette unfolds in monochrome, frenzied crowds chase the Pope-mobile wailing in Tagalog, and a basement party throbs to ’90s break beats. Before him, memories roll out frame by frame: the father who beat him, the grandmother who raised him, the kid learning moves on the dance floor, and the teen unlearning the lessons of the streets. The tangled mixtape of a Filipino American bildungsroman translates surprisingly well on the stage of the New York International Fringe Festival.
“Universal Self” is not so much an autobiography as it is a reflection on what it means to be young, confused and hyphenated, wavering between the third world and the hood. With a buzzed head and ageless bounce, Kilusan, who uses only his first name in performance, splices tales of juvenile delinquency with introspection on migrant identity, inflected with the accents of West Coast migritude, unapologetically jumbling Tagalog and hip-hop vernacular. Kilusan originally titled the piece “Universal Filipino” but changed it to give the show a more global scope.
The show plays back fractious scenes of a hyphenated life. As a child on his first visit to his parents’ homeland, Kilusan gawks at the barefoot kids on the street. Between beatings, his dad lectures him on how lucky he is that the family escaped to California. He becomes a self-styled prodigal son by adopting a new family in a hard-scrabble local crew. And years later he starts to develop his “universal voice,” through a polyglot fusion of first and third world poetics.
A subtext of violence runs through each chapter of his life. We watch him cowering from his father’s monstrous rage, then flying into an explosion of brutality in a neighborhood gang fight, and ultimately, finding a release for his bottled anger on stage in the choreographed muscularity of Filipino martial arts. Somehow it all works against a street soundtrack that weaves the multiple identities into a syncretic groove, syncopating hip-hop beats with Pinoy stick fighting.
Off stage, as a teaching artist with New York’s school system, Kilusan works with the kinds of kids he once hung out with. Working with GED students, he uses his show as a literacy model to reach the type of student who might be labeled “at risk.” Instead of a boilerplate curriculum, he imparts cultural insight through performative dialogue, to push struggling students to see themselves as protagonists in their own story.
“One thing that’s missing from their educational experience is the discussion around identity within a non-judgmental space,” he says, “where people can really feel safe to talk about their experiences—experiences of abuse, experiences of mistaken identity, racial profiling, and even just the empowerment … [of] self-definition.” “Universal Self” repeats that lesson for all ages, especially adults like Kilusan, who are still revisiting past conflicts to cull wisdom about forgiveness and redemption.
His storytelling presents an embrace of duality as balancing individuality with community. “I live in a multiracial society where hip-hop and street culture, at times, over-dominated my inner home experience,” he says. “So as a person that wants to balance both worlds, I try to express that within the play.”
In his teaching and performance, he transports himself back to a tumultuous adolescence in the Mission, nurtured by the renaissance of ’90s hip hop. “When I was growing up and trying to find my own voice, I saw these artists at these shows—DJs, scratch battles, B-Boy competitions—and it really inspired me,” he recalls. His own B-Boy skills never brought him fame, but he carved out his own stage. “I loved to use my voice, I loved to read books, and I loved to do theater,” he continues. “And I did that in the closet, because on the streets, what was cool was hip hop. But, I translated all that into what we call the aesthetic of hip hop theater.”
For kids who can’t find the language to translate between cultures, he says, “You don’t necessarily have to pick a side. But even if you do pick a side, that’s okay … . You want to put it all together, and strive to come up with your own understanding of yourself.”
But in his rhymes on stage, Kilusan does take sides, not between cultures but between values: He turns away from his drug-addicted father’s false idols—“free-basing sent the soul into an artificial paradise”—toward a spiritual center rooted in an earlier generation. “I discovered my voice is a magical tool to one day return my mother’s precious jewels.” He soaks himself in the history of anti-imperialist struggle and an indigenous guardian spirit named Malakas (“strength” in Tagalog).
Appearing in the backdrop as a dancing ritual icon, Malakas also guides Kilusan to seek solace from violence in the grandmother who anchors three generations of his home—the “matriarchal figure that holds everything together.” Once he sheds his street-tough exterior, he discovers that despite the veneer of patriarchy and machismo in Filipino tradition, below the surface, “there’s this feminine energy that I have to pay close attention to.”
Channel-surfing through monologues of family figures, he wraps his evolving identity around a singularly American sense of hybridity expressed in rhapsodic pidgin: “Let’s all eat tocino and listen to revolutionary lingo, as legendary turntablists spin us to the land of bliss.”
Today, recollections of his first visit to the Philippines as a teen filter back through his mind in a different light. He bridled against disapproving provincial relatives, recoiled from the clamoring streets and famished eyes of a post-colonial plutocracy. But in retrospect, plunging into the world his parents left was the first step in relocating his real roots back in the migrant universe of the Bay—the intersection of countless subcultures jammed in a discordant gridlock, blasting Tupac and Tony Santa Ana from open windows.
“When I came back,” he says, “I had a sense of pride and a sense of confusion, I had a strong sense of guilt because of the privileges that I had in America. But I also knew that they loved me. My family in the Philippines and in America loved me.”
On stage, he echoes that love in a stream of trans-pacific babel. Now that he’s spent a lifetime honing his rhymes, he’s finding just the right groove between East and West.
For more information about Kilusan’s upcoming performances, please click here.