Kilusan Bautista’s “UNIVERSAL self” Explores Cultural Identity in Urban America


Jeremy Bautista noticed a parallel between colonialism and drug addiction: An outside force sweeps into lives. Appealing at first, then feels essential over time. Soon the force is in control. Reshapes philosophies and priorities. Strips identities.

Bautista, who lives in downtown Brooklyn and goes by his stage name, “Kilusan,” hasn’t experienced either firsthand. Instead, he’s been witness to their destructive powers.

Bautista had the westernized childhood common to first-generation Americans born to Filipino immigrants. As a child in San Francisco’s Mission District, his prime influences were the cultures of his neighbors. He breakdanced with the black kids and danced salsa with the Mexican kids. He heard stories about Filipino parent who refused to teach their kids Tagalog, and hung out with Filipino kids who weren’t much exposed to the culture of their ancestors.

Their parents had left a nation in flux, ruled by the dictatorial president Ferdinand Marcos, a man with so enamored by the West that he channeled the money he stole from the government into American bank accounts and American beach houses. After decades of Spanish and Japanese control, the Philippines had become an American colony after World War II–English became the primary language in many schools and on many popular television shows. And for many, the “Filipino Dream” meant building a life in America.

“A lot of our communities have left the Philippines in a time when the Philippines didn’t really develop its own identity,” he says.

That life in America, however, would be injected with the urban struggles of the Reagan era. Bautista was maybe five or six years old the first time he walked into his house’s basement and saw his father along with “waves of filipino men, just getting fucked up.” He saw the way his father would come home, muttering senselessly, a shell of himself. And he saw the way the man’s addiction tore apart his family.

Those experiences for the backbone for his one-man play, UNIVERSAL self, which premiers at NYCFringe on Sunday and runs through August 23. It is a story about identity, and about the forces working to erase one’s identity.

“Its a high-energy coming-of-age story of a young man growing up in urban America,” says Bautista, “from the Philippines part of a family’s immigration story to an America plagued by drugs and violence and crime.”

He and his childhood friends often hit the streets. Their crimes started petty–graffiti and small thefts and rumbles with other crews. But as they aged, their offenses increased to robbing stores and houses.These actions, he founds, was how they had cultivated their identities.

“We all resorted to joining gangs and getting involved in crime as away of defining ourselves,” he says.

In UNIVERSAL self, Bautista seeks to define the struggle of urban American youth through the lens of identity. The show’s ongoing tension lies the battle between his identity on the street and his identity in his home. He was one of the lucky ones. His grandmother woke him up at 5 a.m. every Sunday to go to church. His uncle taught him Filipino martial arts. And his passion for hip-hop drove him toward the notebook.

He wrote his first play while at the University of California-Santa Cruz. He dedicated it to his dad. It was about “telling him that I love him despite drug addiction.” In 2005, he started developing UNIVERSAL self, which he finished in 2009, shortly after moving to New York. He honed the script over the next three years and debuted the show at the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective in the Bronx.

Through UNIVERSAL self, Bautista presents common thread that ties the first-generation American experience to that of their immigrant parents.

“Back then I didn’t even know that I was learning of Filipino culture through struggle,” he says. “All this in the context of surviving in America.”