UPDATED:  October 28, 2007 1:05 PM
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ILLUMINATION IN THE UNITY OF DIVERSITY: A Profile on Professor Francis Tanglao-Aguas

By: Amanda Andrei

WILLIAMSBURG, VA—“You have an objective goal of being in the moment,” Professor Francis Tanglao-Aguas instructs his students as they act out a scene in front of their classmates.  “It was two people speaking truth, and then you go to that level—that’s the moment!”

The scene is from Talk-Story by Jeannie Baroga, and it is the first of many plays that Tanglao-Aguas’ students will analyze in their “Asian American History in Action” course at the College of William & Mary.  Founded in 1693, William & Mary hosts Black Studies and Hispanic Studies departments, but currently has no Asian American Studies program.  Crosslisted in the Theater, American Studies, and Black Studies departments, this pioneer course serves to teach students the history of Asians in America through the media of film and theatre.  In choosing Talk-Story as the kick-off play to study, Professor Tanglao-Aguas emphasizes the issue of heritage and personal identity and separating fact from fiction.

Tanglao-Aguas’ creation of this course and his involvement in the arts at William & Mary both stem from his own multi-faceted heritage.  Born in Pampanga, Philippines, he also lived in Abuja, Nigeria, before arriving in the San Francisco Bay Area in California as a teenager.  After earning both his B.A. magna cum laude in Theater and M.F.A. in Playwriting at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television, Tanglao-Aguas went on to teach theater at several other higher education institutions, including Ateneo de Manila University and Georgetown University.  

Currently a Sharpe Faculty Fellow and professor of Theater at William & Mary for the past two years, Francis Tanglao-Aguas has taught a range of courses, from “Introduction to Theatre” to “Sex, Race, Plays, and Films: Dramatizing Diversity.”  In addition to teaching, he has written, acted in, directed, and produced multiple different performances within and outside of the Asian American community. 

Most of his works focus on complexity of being Filipino, from an individual’s stance to a community’s national pride.  His full-length play, when the purple settles, won the 2002 Don Carlos Palanca Award, one of the highest awards in Philippines playwriting.  Blending the languages of Kapampangan and Tagalog with English and Spanish, the play explores themes of gender, religion, violence, and the imagination with unconventional dramatic techniques.  “In the end though, it is my love letter to my mother country,” Tanglao-Aguas concludes.

Another one of his most notable works includes The sarimanok travels which the professor wrote, directed, and performed as “a solo epic on the mythology of the Philippines”—a role in which he plays at least ten characters, including men, women, and even animals.  Combining dance, poetry, and song, the one-man show unfolds in non-linear fashion, including flashbacks before and after WWII and revealing the fervid emotions of the Filipino in his or her homeland or overseas. 

More recently, Tanglao-Aguas has transformed the multicultural landscape at the College of William & Mary through the stage ballet of The Ramayana La’ar, an adaptation of the Hindu epic which relates the stories of the hero Rama and his wife Sita.  This ambitious performance boasted a diverse cast, an elaborate set, and most surprisingly, no script.  After using a variety of languages in the prologue (from Chinese to German), all and any dialogue ceased.  Motives and ideas of the characters were then solely interpreted through the actors’ dancing and miming, their colorful masks and costumes, and a few subtitles to clarify the settings. 

The William & Mary community warmly received the show with over 1,500 attendees.  The ballet won awards from the Virginia Gazette for Best Play, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress and was praised for the diversity it brought to the College.  But as Tanglao-Aguas astutely acknowledged, “Diversity it not about numbers, but about getting to know the people who are here.” 

As one of the few professors of color at the second oldest university in the United States, Tanglao-Aguas notes, “I hope the work we do magnifies the efforts we’re already making in terms of this institution.”  With regards to the course on Asian American Studies, he points out, “If you look at the department that allows for studies of Americans as themselves, the Black Studies program occupies a space as big as an apartment.  We have to be invested in these students’ history.”  Indeed, Tangalo-Aguas does not restrict himself to simply the campus’ Filipino American Student Association (FASA) or the Asian Student Council.  He serves as an adviser for both organizations, as well as for the Muslim Student Association, the African American Theatre Club, and the International Performance Arts Exchange. 

Francis Tanglao-Aguas cuts a colorful figure when he attends events sponsored by these organizations and others.  Most noticeably, he sports a bright Malaysian kufya (or kufi), a hat traditionally worn by Muslim males.  Sometimes it is paired with jeans a finely embroidered barong, a traditional shirt worn by Filipino men, creating a casual yet vivid presence in the room.  When asked why he wears the kufya, he laughs, “I like it! It’s for fashion.  But more importantly, it reminds me of when I went shopping with my Muslim friends in Malaysia who selected and bought them for me as gifts.  [Along with the barong,] I’m getting acquainted with my heritage through a palpable connection.”

The professor’s family also frequently attends these students’ events, such as the FASA welcoming dinner in September.  With their young son sporting a mini barong and their daughter toddling in a tulle dress and light-up shoes, Francis and his wife watch their children play as they chat with the students.  When not teaching or acting, “my leisure is spending time with my wife and kids.  We travel a lot in the summers, and when my kids are grown enough, we’ll back pack together,” he says.  Family is one of Professor Tanglao-Aguas’ top priorities, with service to his students and the Williamsburg community not far from it.

“When people from such random and varied places can get together and just have a good time, if they happen to help others along the way, all the better,” Tanglao-Aguas says.  “I do my best to be of service to as many people as possible using all I was fortunate enough to be given.”  Among his other acts of service, Francis Tanglao-Aguas is also one of the keynote speakers this October in Dialogue, a conference sponsored by the Filipino Intercollegiate Networking Dialogue (FIND Inc.) attended by hundreds of students from East Coast colleges. 

Still in the vein of diversity, Tanglao-Aguas highlights the unity of different talents.  “We don’t have to agree,” he remarks thoughtfully, “but we have to do our best with what we do all the time and make sure we are luminous, incandescent—visible.”  With Dialogue’s theme this year as Pagtuturo (approximately, “the act of education”), Francis calls upon his background as an actor, director, playwright, and most importantly, his experience as a Filipino to reach out and inspire his audience of young adults.  Ultimately, the goal is to inspire action within these students and instill a desire to embrace their heritage, history, and identity.

But when these young people walk away at the end of the day, what will they remember? “All the joking and teasing around I do—yes, even the occasional swearing and text-speak—I do it because I want people to know that we can do serious work in a fun way,” Francis Tanglao-Aguas says, smiling.  “I say we can also say Tawanan mo ang problema habang inaayos mo.  (Laugh at your own problem while fixing it.)”

And so it will be this unconventional, enthusiastic Filipino professor whom they will remember—one who teaches them to act, one who challenges them to learn about their history, one who is part of their family.  Whether on stage, in front of the blackboard, or behind the podium, Francis Tanglao-Aguas speaks his mind and shares his passion to each and every member of his audience.

Professor Francis Tanglao-Aguas will be speaking at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia on Saturday, October 6, 2007.  He will also be performing “The sarimanok travels” at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia on Monday, November 19, 2007 at 6 PM in the University Theatre. For more information on these events, go to http://www.findinc.org/dialogue2007/index.html for Dialogue information and contact either 757.683.5099 or filamcenter@odu.edu for information on “The sarimanok travels”.

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