The Romance of Magno Rubio

Lonnie Carter’s The Romance of Magno Rubio is an Obie award-winning adaptation of Carlos Bulosan’s short story that tells the simple story a young, love-struck farm worker in 1930s California Central Valley. He has fallen in love with a woman who is nearly six feet tall and who weighs almost two hundred pounds. At face value, it seems hardly the stuff of which great plays are made, but like some of the best plays out there, it is the sum of its parts that elevates it into a compelling story.

When you consider that this young man is only four feet six inches tall, the comedic aspect of the play starts to take shape. Carter’s play, however, is not content with being simply about the incongruence of mismatched body sizes. Mango Rubio (Jon Jon Briones) is Filipino: “Dark as a coconut; Head small on a body like a turtle’s.” He is also in love with a white woman he met in a personals page on the back of a magazine.

He’s never met her in person, but he’s working hard to send her money and buy her gifts. If you remember (and most people probably don’t – which is also the beauty of this play – Filipinos were subject to Asian Exclusion Acts and were prohibited from buying land, owning houses or even businesses, and were often the victims of beatings and lynchings. When it came to the matters of the heart, the law had much to say: Filipino men could not marry Caucasian women and if they did, the women were liable to lose their American citizenship.

Told partly in rhymed couplets and incorporating traditional Filipino art forms, such as the use of the rattan sticks used by Eskrima, the martial arts of the Philippines, “The Romance of Magno Rubio” is epic storytelling that casts a magical spell on the audience.

Songs (additional lyrics and text by Ralph Pena) and rhythmic movement peppered throughout the script help tell this story involving Magno and his fellow Filipino migrant workers (the manongs). Like Magno, they all have their goals: Prudencio (Antoine Reynaldo Diel) the cook pines for his wife in the Philippines; Nick (Giovanni Ortega) is educated and longs to save up enough money to matriculate himself into a university; Claro (Erick Esteban) is in search of El Dorado – perhaps a legend of hidden gold in the mountains, but a real one in his eyes.

While they tease Magno Rubio for his foolish infatuation with an Arkansas woman, their harsh words are also a reflection of their own attitudes towards the perceived absurdity of achieving their own dreams. Still, like Magno Rubio’s determination and persistence to marry his Clarabelle (Elizabeth Rainey) the indomitable human spirit is not easily broken. Even as he and his fellow countrymen toil away under harsh weather conditions and deplorable behavior from their foreman so that they might earn a place in this country, sometimes that is not enough. For Magno Rubio it comes crashing down when he learns that his Clarabelle is a gold digger. If “The Romance of Magno Rubio” has a message, it is this: it’s not the goal but the journey that counts.

Yet all is not doom and gloom. Despite its darker tones, there is a sense of exuberance that permeates the play. Under Bernardo Bernardo’s direction, the action moves forward briskly, it is very clear that the play’s message is not an indictment of the American dream, but a celebration of the struggle to be included. Bulosan said that he could love America even though it did not love him. It is a romance that anyone who has immigrated to this country can easily grasp.

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