‘Why Don't You Love Me?’: A Feminist Killjoy Perspective on Here Lies Love
Speaker: Christine Bacareza Balance, Associate Professor of Performing & Media Arts (PMA) and Asian American Studies; Faculty, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University
Moderator: James Robson, James C. Kralik, and Yunli Lou Professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations; Harvard College Professor; Victor and William Fung Director, Asia Center, Harvard University
Abstract of the talk: An immersive theatrical experience created by musician David Byrne, DJ Fatboy Slim, and director Alex Timbers, Here Lies Love officially opened on Broadway on July 20, 2023. With its infectious dance music, a 360-degree scenic and video environment, and historic all-Filipino cast, the musical staged former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos’ rags-to-riches tale and conjugal dictatorship with her husband Ferdinand on a disco dancefloor. “As you're surrounded by and involved in the action,” critic Alexis Soloski wrote in a 2013 review (of an earlier production), “it becomes more difficult to judge or be critical of the characters – dancing with Imelda makes you more likely to sympathize with her and her husband, despite knowing better.” Through immersive theatrical techniques, Here Lies Love worked to arouse the senses of audience members, night after night. Due to the show’s timeliness— as the Philippines recently saw the return of the Marcoses to presidential power (through the election of their son Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos, Jr. in 2022, as the “Great White Way” seeks to diversify its audiences, and as Filipino/Filipino American mainstream representation continues to grow—Here Lies Love also worked to arouse the curiosity and excitement of a diverse set of audiences.
Paying special attention to the forms, techniques, and histories of Broadway musicals that Here Lies Love mobilized, in this presentation, I ask: how did Here Lies Love perform, extend, and obfuscate what Americans know (and do not know) about Imelda Marcos, the Marcos regime, and Philippine martial law histories? Analyzing its sonic, kinesthetic, narrative and transmedial elements, I begin by laying out how the show staged the places of 1980s Philippines and New York through a multidimensional world of sensory experiences. Informed more by the aesthetics and techniques of Broadway than disco, the show simultaneously flattened or ignored contexts while also sensationalizing the Marcoses and their martial rule. I critically attend to how Here Lies Love produced an environment where audiences experienced martial law/Philippine histories through physical proximity, haptic and synesthetic encounters, and a “landscape of boundless participation,” but only within the narrative confines and policed audience choreography set by the show and its creators. According to the show’s artistic team, Here Lies Love’s impact and interpretation ultimately remained the responsibility of its audience/participants, an argument that further emphasized the neoliberal nature of immersive theatre itself. Finally, similar to its predecessor Evita, I argue that Here Lies Love both built upon and extended the “Imelda myth”—
one that gives “natural and eternal justification” for a dictator’s wife’s actions and motivations and, by extension, for her husband’s authoritarian rule. Through Broadway’s narrative structures, archetypal characters, and adaptation of various “source materials” and Imelda biographies, as well as online/social media posts (TikTok videos, Instagram stories, Facebook posts), the musical, like myth itself as Roland Barthes describes, “acts economically, it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics…it organizes a world without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.”
Throughout this talk and research, theorist Sara Ahmed’s “feminist killjoy” allows me a critical ground for making sense of Here Lies Love and its sensational performances on-stage—“impressions that (are) not clear or distinct”—as well as off-stage—as any critiques of the show, ones that ‘describe’ or ‘expose’ the show’s problems, become problems themselves. A feminist killjoy approach allows us ways to consider not only the ‘givens’ of this Broadway production of Philippine history but also the ‘givens’ of Filipino/Filipino American community.
This talk’s research and writing are part of my current book project, Making Sense of Martial Law, which studies Philippine martial law’s “common sense”—the prevalent political, scholarly and popular classifications and descriptions to substantiate the meanings of Marcos’ authoritarian rule—through an artist-driven notion of “making sense”— a set of methods for perceiving the ongoing production of political realities and historical performances. How do we describe and attend to the diverse poetics of Philippine martial law and its afterlives? What do these poetics perform and teach us about authoritarian histories and presents in the global South, the place of the Philippines in U.S. histories of empire/(neo)colonialism and the global Cold War, and the roles of art & culture in our current political moment?
Biography of the speaker: Christine Bacareza Balance is Associate Professor of Performing & Media Arts (PMA) and Asian American Studies, and core faculty in the Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) at Cornell University. She is the 2024 CUNY Thomas Tam Visiting Professor with the Asian American/Asian Research Institute (AAARI). Her writings on former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, Asian American YouTube artists, Bruno Mars, Glee’s karaoke aesthetics, and spree killer Andrew Cunanan have been published in various academic journals. Her first book, Tropical Renditions: Making Musical Scenes in Filipino America (2016), examines how the performance and reception of post-World War II Filipino/Filipino American popular music compose Filipino identities, publics, and politics. Her current book project, Making Sense of Martial Law, analyzes the 21-year dictatorial rule of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and how U.S.- and Philippines-based performances and events critique the “Marcosian imaginary.” With Lucy San Pablo Burns (UCLA), she co-edited the artist-scholar collection, California Dreaming: Movement & Place in the Asian American Imaginary (2020).