TJ Medel: Talk Theater
THERE was a lively historical, analytical, and slightly comical, discussion about love for country and love for words that showed no signs of abating.
As the questions went on and on, Filipino-American poet and spoken word artist, TJ Medel tackled all there is needed to be talked about
including the taboos of racism and sexism that could stir public opinion, even rage, and yet he continued to press on with
honest insights. His moral credentials of patriotism surfaced.
Coming from a lineage of patriots, TJ got to visit the Philippines for the first time in his 28 years of existence. Other than holding spoken word and storytelling workshops in various places of the country, TJ hopes to dig deeper on the stories of his Filipino ancestors.
TJ tudied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and at Chicago’s Second City. He had performed as a poet and spoken word artist in Chicago’s Green Mill and New York’s Madison Square Garden.
He was a part of the 2006 New Jersey Youth Slam Team, the first youth team to represent New Jersey in HBO’s “Brave New Voices.”
His mother hails from Pasay City and his father from Quezon City. After a series of first-hand experience and being the subject of racism, TJ made sure to only take part in groups that are diverse and that of which observe equality amidst the diversity. He later on founded the
two-men improvised spoken word group called Preach.
Our very own national hero Jose Rizal said: I do not write for this generation. I am writing for other ages.
The generation which interprets these writings will be an educated generation; they will understand me and say: “Not all were asleep in the nighttime of our grandparents.” Through the art of spoken word, TJ continues working on the ethos of what a strong and integral Filipino youth should be—the kind that has a proud sense of identity.
When did you start getting into theater and how?
In terms of theater, I have been watching since I started watching television. In terms of mimicking and just being a little boy in Jersey City, one of the first movies that I would watch is “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”
I really look up to Jim Carey. I was always mimicking things that were on TV.
But if you’re talking about theater professionally, I’ve been doing that professionally at 14 or 15; using Spoken Word as a vehicle in order to be able to be paid to be a performer in the tristate area of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. What made me transition from acting to poetry
was the fact that Asians weren’t getting enough parts in the high school that I was in because it was predominantly white.
Also, I was younger and the older people who got the seniority would get the better part more than a freshman because of the time that they’ve put in and because they’re more talented. I didn’t agree with that so I decided to chuck performing theater.
I prefer to write my own materials and perform them. Basically, what I translate into spoken word is like a one-man show as monologues or dynamic debate.
I learned a little about theater in high school. I got most of my training for spoken word from HBO Def Poetry… Gemineye, Big Mike, Lemon Andersen, and Jersey poets. I was exposed to these in high school when I went to a couple of poetry slams.
What’s in a poetry slam?
Spoken word is the art form while poetry slams are slams which are created in Chicago back in the early 80s. It’s a game that poets play.
Basically, judging a poetry, specifically getting five random judges to score poets on a scale of zero to 10. You’re not allowed to use any props or costume or music. You have a time limit of three minutes with a 10-second grace period every second, after that is a half point deducted off your score. I’ve been competing like that for the past 15 years.
The poems that you bring are either pre-planned or depending on the artist if you want to go ahead and improvise them, but most
of them are prewritten. Of course, all works have to be original. I have been competing, teaching, performing, touring around the US for 15 years.
Your workshop is spoken word and storytelling. How does one differ from the other?
There’s a lot less pressure of using mechanics in storytelling. It’s basically what you’d call a monologue. It’s more of I’m-just-telling-you-
a-reading-from-a-book. Spoken word has the connotation to sound more like poetry.
The storytelling workshop is more based on how to recollect and relive a certain event and add more in-depth senses to what you’re trying to say as opposed to poetry using the mechanics of poetry English spoken word in order to convey what you’re trying to
say or reinforcing your message and making sure it hits in a certain type of rhythm.
And how do you incorporate improv or improvised speaking into spoken word?
I realized that when you’re doing spoken word, you have pretty much in your head what you want to convey to the audience.
You’re alone so you’re trying to prefect something —kind of like journalism.
When you’re at home and you’re trying to figure out who’s going to read and the type of perspective that you want to appeal or appease, then that is the same as what a poet would do.
With improv, I learned that you have to tap into a part of the brain that you don’t normally go tobecause it’s the most dangerous and purest part. It’s one that comes from a place of pure honesty.
It’s one place that poets like to go but they like to dress it up with blinders and limitations so they convey a protection for not only themselves but also to the audience. When you do that, you kind of cheat the audience out of the honest experience that you do. It’s like writing a one-sided story about a political point of view.
So I use improvization as a tool to unlock the filter or prejudice or self-judgement every writer has.
Once they allow themselves to go into that deep dark place they don’t want to go to, then their poems are not only richer but much more felt between them and the audience. The connection there is a lot stronger and purer.
What’s the last thing you normally do before stepping on stage?
(Laughs) I loved watching wrestling growing up. For me it’s theater. It was just so dynamic, being able to put so much energy into something and to fake it ‘til you make it! When I saw them warm up, they’d like jump around, do push ups, breathe, like really getting ready.
Since I have so much energy, I’d warm up before going on stage like a professional wrestler! I’m hitting my chest, “Okay! Let’s do this!” (Laughs)
Whether or not it’s for three thousand people, three million, three hundred, thirty, or three people, you are going to
get the same show out of me night in and night out because that is what you came to see.
I am not going to cheat you of this experience and I would be a shitty artist if I didn’t give you the same show that I gave to others.
What makes you love theater this much?
When I see people, it makes me feel alive. I love live theater because I get to look at you in the eye, see you smile, cry, feel pain, feel the words that I’m feeling, see you nod or your fingers snapping.
I love feeling that energy, that connection I make with the audience.
Can you tell good acting from bad acting?
I can’t. I feel that I don’t have enough experience to distinguish but I can definitely feel when an actor is doing the work, that they have immersed themselves so much into a character that you can no longer recognize the actor in it.
Yes. Whether or not you’re Meisner, Stanislavski, Adler, Suzuki, what your process is and how you use it is up to you.
My favorite example is when Heath Ledger played The Joker. You cannot see Heath Ledger at all. That to me is a fantastic acting.
Really bad acting to meis Kristen Stewart in like anything, or Emma Stone trying to be Asian.
Tell us about Preach.
The group that I created is called Preach. It’s improvized, spoken word group back in Chicago that I created because
I felt that the art form in Chicago was being whitewashed.
There was this specific comedy that everybody was conforming to because white people loved it, because white people continued to go to those theaters and it’s only white audiences that laugh at white things.
So when a Filipino watches white comedy then I have to ask myself, how come when I refer to my culture and heritage, why aren’t you laughing? I
realized that white people are not exposed to Filipino culture.
They are exposed to theculture that is fed by white writers on shows that were put on televisions.
So when you whitewash Asian people, people of color, or minority groups of underrepresented individuals, then you’re putting up a false representation of what people in the United States will see.
If you continue to block out the actual people that these stories come from, then you’re misrepresenting those people. What I did was create Preach—Improved Spoken Word—combining two of my favorite art forms and made sure that you have to be very skilled in a very specific set of art forms to convey the comedy-slash-dramatic improvised scenes as well as poems that we create on the spot.
My rule is that if we are going to have a white person in my group then it has to be a woman. So yeah, I don’t have a white man in my group.
Why is that?
That and white men arecurrently running the world. White men are so privileged to a point that they can get away with anything.
If you look at The Oscars, how many white people are in the voting group? How many theaters are owned by white men?
What’s the worst criticism you have ever received?
My mentor made sure that I knew this right away.
If the haters aren’t hating me, then I’m not doing my job. If people are not liking what I’m trying to change, then I obviously am not trying hard enough.
If people are not agreeing to what I’m saying, then obviously I need to fight for it more. It’s 2017.
Institutions have been around for centuries.
We’ve grown up to become a civilization where technology is now running the way that our children grow up, and they ‘re growing up at a rapid rate.
Do I receive backlash for speaking up my mind?
If your child has access to all the same information as like an adult, then they’re going to grow up quicker.
They’re going to think that they’re 18 at 13. I’m going to treat them like an 18-year-old, which is probably the saddest thing I have to tell you.
I can no longer tell you that I see the innocence of a child or the sense of play in children.
When I get backlash, well, you don’t see the things that you’re doing to the youth so I have to fight a little harder because our kids are not the ones in congress, not the ones applying for jobs, not paying for taxes but they’re going to inherit the planet we are on as well as the country we will leave behind. So, yeah, I’m going to make sure that you don’t like the things that I do because I don’t fight for you. I fight for my kids.
What’s the biggest challenge there?
I think getting a backlash from my own people. Filipinos have historically been in their own way. In the many museums that I’ve been
attended in the 15 days that I’ve been here in Philippines, we’ve betrayed ourselves and constantly killed ourselves,
we constantly associated ourselves against our own good, and then put ourselves down. For what reaso, I have no idea.
So when I present a type of change to not just my fellow Asians but Filipino-Americans as well, they’re like, “Why are you doing that? Are you black?
Don’t you want the whitepeople to agree with you?” To see people who look like me, who have gone through the same things as I have, to know more about my culture than me and then tell me that the progressive change that I’m trying to create is wrong, my soul hurts.
My blood hurts. My culture hurts. My sense of pride and who I am as a Filipino hurts because then I start to ask myself, “Where is home if home doesn’t even want me”.
Was there a time you get frustrated and want to throw in the towel?
Yes. I think about quitting in the hardest of times.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been in the shower asking myself why I do this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left auditions feeling like I’m nothing because I just can’t do it because the odds are stacked against me.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up when I’m like I don’t want to do this anymore. My body is tired. We go mental fatigue, then emotional frustration.
I’m trying to figure out why nobody will listen to me, why I can not be supported for things that I’m trying to do that are actually positive for the community, why I continue to prove things to you over and over when I have done so many things, so much more than the person next to me, and yet the reason that you won’t give me a chance is because of my color.
How do you deal with it?
There’s so much negative emotion towards change that I have to condition my mind that I have to come from a place of love as opposed to, “You know what, I don’t like your work because you don’t like mine.”
Maybe I should come from, “I can see why you don’t agree with mine because maybe you were raised differently, and it’s not my place to hate you but I’ll try sympathize with you. I will not change my views but I will respect you as a human being”.
I’m also constantly trying to find new and innovative ways to reinforce my voice and try to have respect for other voices.
I’m trying to pave the way for those following behind me. I’m trying to not only open the door a little bit, I’m actually
trying to bust down the door, or better yet, build my own door so that only Filipinos can get through and then everybody will ask, “Hey, can we come in?”
Being someone who has never been to the Philippines until today, how did you acquire this strong love and extensive knowledge about our culture?
I am blessed and fortunate enough to be the son of real patriots.
My lolo Arman was a colonel in the Philippine Army.
My cousins work in the Department of Education.
Some ofmy other cousins work for outreach in other countries. My uncles and aunts are tied to the UN.
There’s a history of service to your country in military, government, and arts. Thomas Concepcion—he forged the Aquino statue that’s at EDSA— I am a descendant of his. To be a progressive activist through whatever medium runs in my family.
Part of the reason I am here is not just for vacation but to understand who I am because I’ve been an American for
28 years, and I would like to know my Filipino side for the rest of my time on earth.
What places herev would you like to explore?
I’d love to check out Mindanao because I’m a descendant of the Maranao. Apparently, I’m a prince. (Laughs). Yes, fifth generation according to the historian of my family, a.k.a., my tita. I would love to visit the island where my grandmother’s mother is a descendant of someone important. It’s a way to strengthen my voice.
I have never seen the house where my parents grew up, the schools that they attended, the cemeteries where my grandparents were buried.
It kind of gives us a glimpse of who we are and why we are the way we are. When I found out about Lolo Arman’s affiliates, when he did the Death March, when he fought at Bataan, understanding the role that he played in service to his country… it brings life to me.
Is there going to be a change when you get back to the States?
I hope that when I go back to the States, when I write my play and musicals, my poems about being a Filipino, now I don’t feel fake or that I’m lying.
I can actually reference a jeepneybecause I’ve seen it! I can reference Cebu because I’ve seen it, as opposed to reading about it in a book.
Tell us about some people that you look up to.
I look up to John Leguizamo because of his knowledge of his history as being a Latin storyteller and actor, and how he has created one-man shows to represent his people.
I look up to Dave Chappelle because of what he has done with his art form as stand-up and how he has brought a lot of issues of African-Americans to the forefront. I look up to Bernie Sanders because of the revolution that he has created in the States and how progressive he is as a socialist.
It’s more about how we can help each other, as opposed to how I can help you.
To create a sense of community or self-worth, I have to love my neighbor. I look up to my mother and father definitely because as immigrants coming into the country, they have suffered and gone through enough.
The racism, classism, sexism they have experienced all throughout their entire stay at the States has been real to me in so many different levels.
I look up to their sacrifices and the principles they bestowed upon me.I look up to Jim Carey and Robin Williams! (Laughs) Jim Carey for being extremely crazy, and his upbringingas an artist knowing that he came from extreme poverty in Canada and sticking to it all the way until in In Living Color and then Ace Ventura and breaking out from there.
Robin Williams because he came like from stand-up and incorporated the sense of play in such a public way.
My mentors in New Jersey, my deans, anybody I look up to. The list of celebrities is small, but the list of personal interactions that I’ve made with people that had a positive influence on my life is long.
They’re the unsung heroes of my life because they gave me the tools that they’ve learned willingly. The knowledge that they bestowed upon me is one a thing a celebrity can’t give me. I don’t have a lot of female role models, but I know why. It’s because my mother is the only one.You must be very close to her.My mom and I drink together. That’s how close we are. I’m prettysure if we did drugs, we did drugstogether. (Laughs). She’s like my best friend.
Tell us more about her.
My mother—because of her beinga single parent for a period of time, her going to the States and dealing with racism in multiple states and still dealing with it until this day inthe profession of being an incredibly well-positioned charge nurse.
Shewas recently voted one of Arkansas’ Best One Hundred Nurses.
She’ll be honored with that sometime in April which I hope to go to. When I’m down, I’ve failed, given up, even when family members given up on me, she never gave up on me.
She never disowned me, never made me feel like I wasn’t worth anything. She made sure we had good education.
She calls me every day. She’s like, “Son, are you okay? Do you need money? You don’t need, right? Because I’m not gonna give it to you.” (Laughs)
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