‘Mix-Mix: The Filipino Adventures of a German Jewish Boy’ in world premiere
The Ensemble / Grettel Cortes

LOS ANGELES — How does a German Jewish refugee not yet of bar mitzvah age find himself in the jungle shadowed by sacred Mount Banahao, hiding out with his family and a newfound company of Filipino friends to evade the Japanese occupying forces of the Philippines in World War II?

We find out in the epic, continent-spanning play Mix-Mix: The Filipino Adventures of a German Jewish Boy by Boni B. Alvarez, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera. Rivera is the founding artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, which cosponsors the world premiere production at the Los Angeles Theater Center with the resident Latino Theater Company. In a historic rarity, one of the producers (along with Olga Garay-English), is the 93-year-old Ralph J. Preiss, the teenage Rudy Preissman of the original story, who attended the opening night performance, flying in from his home in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

From left, Kennedy Kabasares, Mark Doerr, Casey J. Adler / Grettel Cortes

In January 2020, Preiss was invited to speak to the United Nations at a special event in observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A close friend of the family happened to invite Los Angeles arts advocate and consultant Olga Garay–English to watch on Zoom. Preiss, who enjoyed a long career at IBM, had never publicly shared his youthful saga before.

“I thought, this is a story that needs to be told,” says Garay-English, who was able to connect Rivera, born in Manila, and Alvarez, who is of Filipino descent, with Preiss. “Ralph has been a big part of the development process, and Jon and Boni have the savvy and sophistication to bring his lived experience together in a highly theatrical way. The play is told from the point of view of the kids: Ralph and his Filipino friends think this is all a great, grand adventure despite the dangers of the Japanese Occupation.” In an interview with the Los Angeles Jewish Journal Preiss reveals that his fugitive group in the mountains comprised some 70 people, far more than the nine actors we see on stage.

As part of the development process, Mix-Mix received a staged reading at the Los Angeles Jewish-themed Skirball Cultural Center, which co-commissioned the play. When Latino Theater Company presented a second reading late last year, artistic director José Luis Valenzuela immediately knew it was something the company wanted to produce. “This is the kind of play that exemplifies our mission to start cross-cultural conversations,” he says.

“Philippines President Manuel Quezon saved over 1,000 Jews with his ‘Open Door’ policy, even as most Jews were being refused entry around the world,” explains Rivera. “The Philippines, a developing country, was able to get these people out. It’s a story you don’t hear much about, and we’re delighted to present it during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.” May also happens to be Jewish American Heritage Month.

At that time the Philippines was still a “Commonwealth” of the United States, which had won the islands from Spain in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. In the immediate aftermath, the U.S. conducted a ferocious, years-long war against native Filipino resisters who had already declared their national independence. Being a U.S. possession, it was the American government that limited Quezon’s generous open door policy. He would have accepted thirty to fifty thousand Jewish refugees, but the U.S. imposed a limit of only 1000 per year, but by the time of the Japanese invasion, only about 1200 Jews had made it to the country. The Philippines achieved complete formal independence in 1946, but many Filipinos would assert that their nation had become merely a “neocolony” of the U.S. in this new era.

The Preissman family were able to secure exit visas to the Philippines in 1939. The “Night of Broken Glass” (Kristallnacht) of 1938 is featured in the play as one of young Rudy’s most vivid memories as a seven-year-old.

The heart of the play is the peripatetic four-month-long trek through the bush to evade capture and death at the hands of the Japanese. This could get boring for two acts, so the action is punctuated every few minutes by flashback scenes of the Jewish family’s life in Rosenberg, Germany, some of young Rudy’s experiences in Manila once they arrived, and Filipino history. Amusement ensues when the Jewish boys at a Filipino school are taught about the “Hail Mary” and the rosary. For a time, rather inexplicably, he was put in charge of chaperoning Paloma Palma, a famous Filipina movie star. He also had the chance, with Cantor Weissman of the local Manila synagogue, to practice his bar mitzvah Torah portion and prayers. As a stranger from a far-off land, Rudy is often called upon to relate his fascinating, sometimes humorous stories to his newfound Filipino friends. By the end we find the characters in a U.S. Reunification Camp, enjoying bubble gum and peanut butter, awaiting the next phase of their lives to unfold.

Some of the key moments of the fast-moving play are choreographed—the hike up the mountain, capturing a wild boar, and a funeral. These are among the most electric episodes in the drama. The physical response to air raids and bombing sorties is nothing short of visceral. Somehow in the wild the refugees cleverly find places to wash themselves and their clothes.

From left, Mark McClain Wilson, Myra Cris Ocenar, Angelita Esperanza, Jill Remez, Giselle “G” Tongi / Grettel Cortes

The story resonates with the director, who, though Philippine-born, had never heard the story of his country providing haven to over 1000 Jews during World War II. And for the playwright the story holds special meaning as well: His father was in utero with his grandmother during the war, and his grandfather, in the Filipino army, was killed by the Japanese, so she was hiding out in the mountains like Rudy.

Alvarez’s play is writ large, including a number of campsites around the mountain that are all distinctly portrayed. A clearer timeline marking exactly when the group fled to the mountain might have helped to make the chronology more coherent. The group leader’s role might also have been better defined. He is in contact with other refugee groups, both to learn the positioning of the Japanese soldiers and to help determine the next campsite and the best route to get there. What is the nature of this resistance group? Did it have some kind of political orientation, like partisan groups in Europe during the war, or was this simply self-organized, randomly gathered, escaping terror for mere survival?

The production stars Casey J. Adler, Alexis Camins, and Angelita Esperanza as the three children, Rudy, Felizardo “Zar” Manzano, and Ligaya “Mousie” Ybanez. Everyone else, including family members, neighbors, soldiers, film star Paloma Palma, and more, are played by Mark Doerr, Kennedy Kabasares, Myra Cris Ocenar, Jill Remez, Giselle “G” Tongi, and Mark McClain Wilson. The understudy, whom we did not see on opening night, is Arianne Villarreal. The production team features choreography by Reggie Lee and fight choreography by Alvin Catacutan. The scenic designer is Christopher Scott Murillo; lighting design is by Azra King-Abadi; sound design is by Jesse Mandapat; video design is by Nick Santiago; costume design is by Mylette Nora; and the prop master is Lily Bartenstein. The stage management team includes production stage manager Letitia Chang, assistant stage manager Sam Pribyl, and wardrobe assistant Manee Leija.

Rivera’s direction is brisk and tight: Ensemble acting is the word of the day. In Act 1 I found the characters shouting much of the time, which often blurred words spoken with either German or Filipino accents and became unnecessarily monotonous as the audience struggled to get used to the pronunciation. Happily, this feature diminished considerably in Act 2.

Ralph Preiss on opening night | Eric A. Gordon/PW

In historical fact, Rudy celebrated his bar mitzvah in Manila before the family had to take to the mountains. But in the play—the playwright availing himself of the artistic license granted him by Ralph Preiss—the ceremony is conducted much less formally with his comrades on the move. In an all too common misjudgment in the theater, actor Casey Adler had been coached for his extensive Hebrew chanting in the modern, Sephardic Israeli pronunciation, not the Northern European Ashkenazi version, which sounds quite different.

This play is staged in repertoire with American Mariachi and Ghost Waltz. All three are what José Luis Valenzuela calls “plays that will not be produced anywhere else.” This reviewer agrees. For original, relevant, socially meaningful thematic material presented professionally and engagingly, you won’t go wrong seeing any or all of these productions.

“Mix-Mixis a direct English translation of the Tagalog word “Halo-Halo,” the name of a popular Filipino dessert that’s a mixture of jellies, tapioca pearls, fruit, beans, corn, shaved ice, condensed milk, and ice cream—an appropriate metaphor for the mixed cultures that came together as the world contended with the horrors of World War II. Mix-mix was served at the opening night reception along with other tasty Filipino foods.

Mix-Mix: The Filipino Adventures of a German Jewish Boy plays on Thurs., Fri., and Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 4 p.m. through June 16. The Los Angeles Theatre Center is located at 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles 90013. Parking is available for $8 with box office validation at Los Angeles Garage Associate Parking structure, 545 S. Main St. (between 5th and 6th Streets, just behind the theater). Or find street parking or take the Metro. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (213) 489-0994 or go to the company website here.

A news story about the play on Spectrum News 1 can be viewed here. The Jewish Journal story on Preiss and the play he inspired can be found here. A radio interview with the playwright can be heard here. And here, in Broadway World, Gil Kaan interviews Casey Adler, who plays Rudy.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.