Tuesday, October 1, 2013

PROFILES IN ACTIVISM | FANHS-NY Outstanding Artist Award goes to actor/singer Liz Casasola of Broadway Barkada

Liz Casasola: FANHS Outstanding Artist Awardee
The beautiful actor and singer Diane Phelan, who most recently reprised the role of Tuptim in THE KING & I at Sacramento Music Circus and played the role of Laurey in Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA! at the Berkshire Theatre Group, has had a streak of successes this year. But she remembers a period when her career had gone fallow, and she was feeling down about her future. "Being a performer of ethnic heritage sometimes means there is less opportunity to perform," Phelan says.

Enter Liz Casasola, the New York actor, singer and producer who formed Broadway Barkada – a group of Filipino American artists who have performed on and off-Broadway and core member of Broadway Barkada.

"Liz has, on several opportunities, given me the chance to stretch myself as an artist as well as give Filipinos a voice by performing with Broadway Barkada," Phelan recalls. "The first time was particularly poignant for me because I was recovering from a long illness and was set to leave the business. I hadn't danced in a long time and didn't think I could continue. Liz encouraged me to participate in the dance concert; it gave me the confidence and strength to move forward. That very next month I was cast in a new show, and I know it was due to Liz's help."

Casasola is one of two artists whom the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS)'s New York chapter will honor with an Outstanding Artist Award for their integration of Filipino American culture in their respective artistry. (The other Outstanding Artist Awardee is the comedian Air Tabigue.)

Every year, at the start of the Filipino American History month of October, FANHS presents an annual community award to several individuals who have demonstrated commitment to the preservation of Filipino American history and the promotion of the Filipino American community of the metropolitan New York area. This year's kick-off the event, co-hosted by the Philippine Consulate General, is called “Opening Ceremonies.”  It takes place at the Philippine Center in Manhattan (556 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY), on Tuesday October 1 from 6:30-9:00 pm.


FANHS Metro NY chapter

Two of Casasola's cast mates from Pan Asian Repertory Theatre's 2009 production of Imelda: A New Musical sing her praises as well.

Actor/singer Brian Jose portrayed the part of Ninoy Aquino in the Pan Asian Rep musical opposite Casasola who played Corazon Aquino. Jose says, "There is no question in the Filipino performing arts community of New York that Liz is the glue that keeps us all connected. It's been a privilege to co-produce with her on Broadway Barkada productions and to see firsthand how her networking skills, passion for the arts, and her love of the Philippines have united the Filipino arts community and, in turn, have brought our culture and talent to the forefront of many New York stages."

Actor/singer Jaygee Macapugay has twice played the title role of Imelda Marcos: for Pan Asian Rep's musical and the Public Theater's hit immersive musical Here Lies Love. Macapugay can't help but underscore Casasola's role as a change agent.

" 'Everything you do must reflect your passion' -- if you've ever received an e-mail from Liz, you know that's how she signs off every message," Macapugay says. "Liz has adopted that philosophy in every aspect of her life, especially with Broadway Barkada. Liz has the gift of bringing people together.  Loving, conscientious, forward-thinking Filipino Americans who sincerely want to help bring about change in the community."

Often, rehearsals for Broadway Barkada shows take place at Casasola's home. "Our home," Jose says. "We are treated like family. We eat. We sing. We laugh and laugh and laugh. There is an instant comfort level that comes with knowing Liz. She puts you at ease, her words are genuine, and you feel like you've know each other for years. Her passion for the arts is palpable and inspires all of those it comes in contact with."

Like most artists avid for opportunity and not waiting for anyone else to hand it to them, Liz Casasola took charge of her own destiny. In the fall of 2009, she, Jose and Billy Bustamante formed Broadway Barkada, a group of New York-based Filipino actors, singers, and dancers who have professional credits in the performing arts.

Broadway Barkada

Macapugay says, "Liz told me once that the only qualification you need to be in the Barkada is to be real. My first memory with Liz and Broadway Barkada was as co-emcees for the 2010 benefit concert 'A Barkada Christmas,' where we raised $2,400 for the relief efforts in the Philippines, from the devastation of Typhoon Andoy.  The proceeds went to the PinoyMe Foundation, which micro-finances local business, and the San Juan Nepomuceno School, with the idea of helping the poor help themselves. Onstage or off, Liz has a passion for promoting the success of our people, whether at home or abroad. And that's just one of the reasons why Liz is one of my best friends."

I myself have been a recipient of Casasola's generosity of spirit. This past summer, for example, she went out of her way to reach out and ask if she could help me with a kapihan event I organized with the cast of Here Lies Love at Ugly Kitchen Restaurant in New York City. Together we co-hosted the afternoon, which included a meal and a discussion about the vexed legacy that Marcoses left behind.

What stays with me when I think of Liz Casasola are her achievements as a committed theater artist. In Pan Asian Rep's Imelda: A New Musical, she embodied the strength of spirit and the purity of the character of the role of Corazon Aquino. She was especially memorable in the show's 11 o'clock anthem, "Myself, My Heart," which lifted the show to inspiring heights.

She has also been an integral mover-and-shaker at Diverse City Theater where she produced a series of plays by women. She co-produced Lea Salonga's sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in 2005. She stood out in a Sondheim concert at Lincoln Center and in the Obie Award-winning production of DOGEATERS at The Public Theater. She can be heard on Grammy-nominated band, Boukman Eksperyans' album. She held a sold-out concert at NY's famed Crash Mansion. On television, she has appeared in "Saturday Night Live" and "Sex & the City."

Where did her passion for theater come from? Hailing from Berkeley, Casasola is an acting graduate of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in New York City. She grew up watching musicals on TV. The definitive moment she knew she wanted to be in musical theater was when she played a 2-cassette tape given to her by a friend. It was the Miss Saigon soundtrack.

"I was completely blown away by the score, and particularly, the lead actress, Lea Salonga," Casasola recalled in an interview. "I was inspired by her voice and passion just from hearing the recording. My sister and I would play the soundtrack, and act out the scenes, even though we had never seen the show!"

Even then she was a versatile performer. Her sister played Kim, the lead actress, and she always portrayed Chris, the GI soldier. And she eventually did perform in MISS SAIGON.

Casasola's passion is connecting Filipinos to each other here in New York City. That makes her winning. Yet what makes her special is the reason she deserves to be celebrated this month by FANHS: her outstanding theatrical artistry.

Congratulations, Liz. -- rg


Me and Liz

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