First staged in 2010 at the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) Theater Center in New Manila, The Care Divas was such a sensational hit that this musical was restaged in November 2011 due to what was publicized as “public insistence.” In April 2012, the musical was restaged in a bigger venue, the Onstage Theatre in Makati City, the central business district of the National Capital Region. Five years after, The Care Divas returns to the PETA Theater Center for a limited run beginning 3 February 2017. Written by Liza Magtoto with music by Vince de Jesus and directed by Maribel Legarda, The Care Divas revolves around the struggle of five Filipino caregivers in Israel. However, this struggle is a mere background to the real struggle with their sexual identities as bakla (Filipino gay men) in this predominantly Jewish nation.

The five caregivers-turned-divas as they perform before the owner of a bar in Tel-Aviv. Photo: Philippine Educational Theater Association

Inspired by a true story, the musical follows the adventure of five Filipino caregivers who moonlight as drag queens at a nightclub in Tel Aviv during the second intifada or the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule. At the core of the musical is Chelsea (performed by Melvin Lee and alternating with Red Concepcion), who of the five, seems to be the luckiest. Chelsea’s employer, Isaac (performed by Paul Holmes and alternating with Leo Rialp) treats Chelsea as his own child and teaches him Israeli culture, particularly the Hebrew language. At the same time, Chelsea has a potential boyfriend (the Palestinian Faraj, performed by Myke Solomon) who is welcoming of his being bakla. Shai, (played by Vince de Jesus, who also composed and wrote the songs) the leader of the group, is haunted by his family, especially his mother who never accepted his homosexuality. Chelsea and Shai are joined by Kayla (Jerald Napoles in the earlier productions and currently played by Ricci Chan and Gio Gahol), Thalia (Dudz Teraña and Jason Barcial) and Jonee (Buddy Caramat, alternating with Thou Reyes) whose employers are not as good as Chelsea’s. During the most crucial performance of the five caregivers turned “divas,” Kayla who is the club owner’s favorite, is deported for working illegally in Israel. As a result, the dream of making it “big” in Tel Aviv begins to shatter as the opportunity to perform as a front act is given to Nonah (performed by Joan Bugcat), the group’s girl friend and also a caregiver in Tel Aviv. Everything falls out of place when suddenly a Palestinian suicide bomber detonates a bomb killing Chelsea instantly while trying to save Faraj from the Israeli policemen and from the danger of being deported. Towards the end, the remaining “divas” commemorate the “heroic” deeds of Chelsea and begin a celebratory song number that speaks of tolerance and acceptance.

The attempt of The Care Divas to represent the bakla has implicitly featured the Filipino homosexual as a cosmopolitan. The five caregivers-turned-divas are exemplars of what some scholars of cosmopolitanism call the citizen-of-the-world or being at home in the world. This is because, being in a transnational setting, these Filipino caregivers in Israel engage in what anthropologist Ulf Hannerz calls an intellectual and aesthetic stance of openness toward divergent cultural experiences by negotiating cultural traditions from their home country (in the case of the musical, the Philippines) with the culture and traditions of the receiving country (Israel, in the musical).

This cosmopolitan argument plays with instances of opening up oneself to many cultural affiliations. But more importantly, the cosmopolitan-self concerns a responsibility towards the other anchored within a genuine caring as implicated in their performance of affective labor while being caregivers in Israel. In other words, cosmopolitanism in the musical is a disposition of survival based on negotiations and inspired by an enactment of care and an ethical disposition of responsibility towards the other. In this light, the other (in the case of the musical, the citizens of the host country Israel) is not a stranger to these bakla despite the often othering of their gender.

Affective labor is commonly typecast as a woman’s work especially in traditional societies of many Asian communities. Affective labor is traditionally reflected as kin’s work and/or caring labor. Hence, it produces a sort of intimacy: the female (the mother, the grandmother, the aunt, the sister, the daughter) persona professes an act of intimacy by providing care to her family members. When combined with transnational labor, the concept of labor finds its value in affect as discussed in most scholarship. In transnational discourse, affective labor is the non-material labor of the service industry, of housemaids, nannies, and sex workers. Since the emphasis of affective labor is on the female persona, the feminization of transnational labor in The Care Divas makes sense. However, this feminization is a masking of instrumentality. The feminization of transnational labor in the musical is also a good avenue to assert a glimpse of the cosmopolitan. It is with this feminization that affective labor pushes a particular intimacy that posits a cosmopolitan encounter.

Paul Holmes (as Isaac) and Melvin Lee (as Chelsea). Photo: Philippine Educational Theater Association

Although this intimacy is seemingly a product of instrumentality, this affective labor is grounded within the interaction and interrelation of what Marsha Meskimmon calls as the political and moral economies, reciprocity and generosity, universal principles and contextual decisions. For instance, in a scene between Kayla and her employers Yaakov and Sarah (played by Sherry Lara) regarding the parol (Christmas lantern), Sarah reprimands Kayla for hanging the parol in the house – in front of Kayla’s room. Kayla reasons out that it’s a star – although not the Star of David. Sarah is insulted but Sarah’s father, Yaakov insists that it is okay to hang the parol to remind Kayla of the Philippines. As Yaakov states: “You let Kayla. He misses the Philippines.” Kayla is ready to throw the lantern away but Yaakov insists of putting it in front of her door. Kayla, in gratitude, tells Yaakov, “Todah rabbah,” (thank you in Hebrew). Here, there is an encounter of the political and the ethical manifested in their cultural differences. The ethical is in the act of generosity, kindness, and care – the insistence of Yaakov to hang the parol despite their non-Catholic disposition. This was an act of respect and recognition on the side of Yaakov. It is easy to assume the respect that Kayla encountered from Yaakov comes from mutual respect – a mutual generosity, based on her obligation as a caregiver. The obligation to care – whether instrumental or not, imperative or not — is an act of responsibility for the other. There is an intermingling of the universal impulse and the contextual decision as a notion of justice is executed. In a way, it is Kayla’s right to profess her cultural affiliation, which was being suppressed by Sarah. Yaakov’s intercession served to uphold Kayla’s cultural right.

What is also fascinating about the musical is that it does not deny the role of instrumentality in transnational affective labor. Besides, it is in the contract signed between the domestic (here, the caregiver) and the employer where the domestic vows to profess and perform affective care for the well being of her employers. Usually, domestics are required to provide care for the children of the employers, especially in a developed state where mothers of the household are compelled to participate in the state’s economic development. This is especially true in the case of Hong Kong and Singapore, two city-states with an equally globally competitive economy, as seen in the academic writings of Pheng Cheah and Nicole Constable. The hiring of domestics, who are expected to provide the infamous 3Ds, requires them to engage in the affective labor of caring. In a way, the domestics (mostly females) are required to perform mother-hood (and in some cases, wife-hood) to the children of the employers (or, sometimes, to the husband of the female employer as in the report of Nicole Constable in his 1997 book about the domestics in Hong Kong). Nonetheless, despite the instrumentality of this transnational economy of affective labor, there are moments where genuine caring overshadows instrumentality. There are many stories about domestics who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of their wards.  This care – this foundation of affective labor – permits intimacy to prosper, as an act of the cosmopolitan will. More so, this act of care permits the moral agency of the individual. In the case of this musical, it is this act of care, which permits moral agencies of the five divas.

Myke Solomon (as Daniel / Faraj) and Melvin Lee (as Chelsea). Photo: Philippine Educational Theater Association

We cannot ignore that this act of care, although developed within the paradigm of instrumentality, may also be an imperative of something ethical rather than the automation of obligation. It is in this act of care – the act of generosity and hospitality — that the moral agency of the individual is awakened. In this way, the affective labor performed by the caregivers (or the care-divas, in the case of the musical, like the many scenes with Chelsea and her employer) becomes more of responsibility and an ethics of care than a contractual obligation. As art theorist Marsha Meskimmon points out in another context:  it is the responsibility of care via recognizing the concrete differences of situated others.

For instance, Chelsea’s employer Isaac is grateful for having Chelsea as his caregiver. Despite not being a family member and despite not being Hebrew, Isaac considers her as his own. There can only be one ultimate reason for this. Chelsea has professed an ethical disposition based on genuine care and treated her labor as a responsibility towards the other (towards Isaac in particular) rather than a contractual obligation signed between her and the employer. These moments of intimacy remind us that one cannot actively care without caring. Thus, the strength of the musical vis-à-vis issues of globalization tells us that these divas actualize what care-giving really means, devoid of its instrumental and neoliberal characters.

The musical affirms that care is the cornerstone of affective labor. The musical is a reminder that care overshadows the cosmopolitan. In the musical, care is both a disposition and a set of practice. As a disposition, it is a moral orientation. The five caregivers/divas in this musical remind audience members that the need to give and receive care is a fundamental part of human existence. These caregivers/divas help the audience members recognize that attentiveness, responsiveness, responsibility and competence via the act of care are central yet undervalued aspects of morality. Finally, it is a set of practice, because caring for the self and caring for others are fundamental aspects of humanity. Human individuals are engaged in caring on a daily basis. The human person exists in complex groups and networks of relationships to which responsibilities are attached, and these responsibilities almost always involve care.

The Care Divas will run until 19 March 2017 at the PETA Theater Center in New Manila, Philippines.

This essay originally came out in a different form in the Journal of Homosexuality (Volume 62, Issue 11). 

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.