By Paul Barrera
It’s a wet April evening in the City, and veteran San Francisco artist-activist Alleluia “Manai” Panis has rehearsal. A spring rain soaks the cracked concrete streets and faded cement sidewalks of SOMA Pilipinas — the newly designated Filipino Cultural Heritage District located in the heart of the South of Market neighborhood. On the corner of Mission and 6th, inside the Bayanihan Community Center, dancers and performers file into the main hall to practice the movements of Alleluia Panis’ current project — INCARCERATED 6×9. This dance-theater performance employs a Filipino-American lens to explore the impact of systemic police predation on men of color, and the ways in which mass imprisonment ensnares entire communities in the painful clutches of separation, shame, and dehumanization. Inspired by the real-life experiences of Filipino San Franciscans, the story is set in a recognizable, not-so-distant future, highlighting the prescient nature of the characters’ struggles and presenting a sense of urgency that demands response. For Manai, helping her community to more fully understand — and take a position on — the forces that maintain colonization is a vital part of her process.
Photos by Wilfred Galila
“Generational trauma needs to be solved, and creating work is the way to do it. My job as an artist is to help us see the walls around us and look at them from a different point of view, a comprehensive point of view that maybe I or we didn’t or couldn’t think about before. Because if we aren’t able to recognize these things for what they truly are, there’s nothing to be done. We have to be able to recognize them and call them out for what they are first.”
It’s no mistake that she ensured every performance of INCARCERATED: 6×9 is accompanied by post-show community discussions on the impact of incarceration in Filipino San Francisco, and beyond. These workshops will address various topics like “Incarceration and Law” (moderated by the Asian American Criminal Trial Lawyer Association), “Life After Prison” (moderated by neighborhood violence prevention leaders United Playaz), “Artists in Prison” (moderated by Kyle de Ocera and Ma. Rosalie Zerrudo), and “Mothers in Prison” (featuring Mother’s Day, a short film by RJ Lozada.) This project is grounded in its locality and its people. It features an exclusively Southeast Asian and mixed heritage cast, a Filipina music director, and represents the stories of Filipino people in the South of Market.
“Each human being has a lot of stories to tell. And we don’t have to go too far to create artistic work and to investigate who we are as people. There are gems that we all carry inside of us that we can always investigate,” she said.
The assemblage, rehearsal, production, and performance of INCARCERATED: 6×9 constitute are an artistic endeavor concerned with expressing the history of a neighborhood. It also engages in real-time creation of sanctuary space for people to learn more about who they are as artists, activists, neighbors, and members of a community that faces erasure every day. In this way, Manai does not simply write, direct, or perform theatrical dance pieces. She creates critical spaces, engaging community relationships and leveraging community resources that she herself has helped steward and defend.
“Our experiences do matter, and it’s been trying to be erased by all this stuff. And I want to say, ‘No, it should not be erased. I want to see it, I want to write about it, I want to make work about it to assert my existence as a Filipino-American.’ Because we should know our past, and we should always be thinking about what can we do for our future,” she said.
This kind of artistic confidence is rooted in both natural talent and immersive study; Manai’s training includes ballet, jazz, and modern dance at conservatories in San Francisco and New York as well as deep experience in indigenous Mindanaoan dance and five years of study of the Pilipino blade fighting system. She melds her artistic vision with activism experiences to cultivate a living connection between the indigenous culture bearers of the Philippines and the contemporary experiences of the Filipino diaspora. She sets her work primarily against the violent cultural economics of the West that threaten and exploit persons historically considered less-than.
Moving the production forward — developing the nuanced knowledge and genuine language necessary — is no small feat, inviting full-hearted investment from the entire cast on an artistic and intimate level. Thus, the small company of performers and artists charged with delivering the full project’s vision unite on physical aspects of the work and its practical and personal concerns , especially the liberty and empowerment of communities of color.
“ In the telling of myths, fairy tales, and even real stories, all of it has a moral: This is what happened and how do we find ways of avoiding it? […] So the work of a piece like this, for me, is to make sure that specific experiences are highlighted; history is often written by the winner, and a lot of that means that the truly important moments are erased. And I have a desire to combat that — as a queer, black, Filipino person, I feel like I’ve lost of my ancestors to that systemic erasure,”
— José Abad, who plays Nico Cruz Smits.
While some of the cast have worked with Manai previously, others are new to her process. They all express a deep gratitude, not just for the opportunity to create work that makes space to explore identity, but to be invited into a space that is a place for them to enjoy the same kind of exploration.
“I really want to explore more now how I can integrate my training in modern dance and stay respectful towards issues that are pertinent to our community, and also our indigenous roots. My training is in modern dance, in western aesthetics. So I question myself, too — how do I stay true to that passion that I have, and also how do I stay respectful to the dance and expression of my own people?” said Frances Sedayao, who plays the mother of “Hes” Gatpala.
Carrying a genuine reverence and respect for the stories embodied in INCARCERATED 6×9 is a major preoccupation for the cast. So much of the narrative hinges on actual people and events in the SOMA Pilipinas community — where the piece is being rehearsed at the Bayanihan Community Center on Mission Street and performed at Bindlestiff Studio on 6th Street. The personal gravity of the stories allows both the artists and the audience to experience how systemic pressures end up affecting living, breathing individuals — and reflect on the decisions they make to defy those pressures and survive in a way that preserves their sense of self.
“It’s really humbling. Because what really helped me get into the character was not only getting to talk to [the people behind the characters], but knowing that we have things in common. […] They still think the way we think and care about the things we care about,” said Jon Mercado, who plays Ronoldo “Boying” Batongbakal.
Part of enjoying a kind of familiarity with the characters also means that they’re in direct confrontation with the issues they’re tackling in INCARCERATED 6×9. The moment they step out of rehearsal at the Bayanihan Community Center and onto the streets of the South of Market, they, like the characters they play, are de facto targets of an exploitative and violent system of law enforcement.
“It’s scary because there’s a possibility that what happened with [our characters] could happen to any of us. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and got caught up in the system, and boom, they’re inside for 25 years. It’s not difficult to imagine [any] of us getting into that kind of situation,” Jon said. The cast notes that the impact of exploitation reverberate through the entire community across generations. In this way, INCARCERATED 6×9 presents a full picture of what mass incarceration as a societal practice means for all the people who are its victims.
“You can be incarcerated by anything — personal issues, sexuality. You don’t have to be in a cell to be imprisoned,”
– June Arellano, who plays Jesus “Hes” Gatpala.
With INCARCERATED 6×9, Manai addresses and give voice to the persons and communities experiencing these kind of pressures, while simultaneously providing an essential space for frank discussion of one of Filipino and Asian America’s least-discussed subjects — and, as with all communities of color, one of its most pressing. “We’ve gotten through all of this colonization through our ancestors. So we should take some empowerment from that. Our ancestors managed to keep us living despite a most hostile situation, and still were able to find joy.”
The work of INCARCERATED 6×9 and Manai’s community-centric, people-first ethos radiates outward into the streets of SOMA Pilipinas — the blossoming cultural district in that the work of activists like Alleluia and her contemporaries has helped to establish, honoring the generations of proud Filipino-Americans living south of Market Street in San Francisco. It’s an approach that emphasizes the productive, trust-building power of every moment’s energy, whether marked by ease or difficulty, happiness or darkness.
“I think it’s easy to get caught up in everything that’s pretty and beautiful — often, even something that’s monstrous is put out and promoted as pretty and beautiful. And in dance, it’s the physical aspect of the form — ‘I can stretch my leg this far, and jump this high’ — and we’re so in love with form. So I’m so happy that I can use the form as a language to tell stories the combat the erasure of our memories. We’ve forgotten so much; we were made to forget so much. So, how do we remember? These works are ways for remembering. And if I feel like I am authentically getting that remembering, then others will too. And so we have to trust it.”
Paul Barrera is a Bay Area native, writer, and community organizer based in Oakland & San Francisco.