In her final year at Unitec's drama school, Marianne Infante went looking for plays written by Filipino New Zealanders; she didn't find any so decided she'd write one herself.

Tonight, she makes history when Pinay opens at the Basement Theatre and becomes the country's first locally written and produced bilingual Filipino play. In a demonstration of the growing strength of the local Filipino community, the cast is predominantly Filipino while James Roque directs.

Roque is well-known as a comedian but he's also a cofounder of Proudly Asian Theatre set up in 2013 to champion work by Asian and Pan-Asian writers in New Zealand and ensure it reaches a wide audience. Roque, whose own family came from the Philippines, says it's long been a dream of his to direct a Filipino production in New Zealand.

Despite being the third largest Asian migrant group in New Zealand, he says Filipino people remain under-represented on the local stage and screen and in the media in general.


"But I see this as an Avengers' style of gathering for all the Filipino theatre-makers in Auckland to really wave the flag hard. It would have been a pipe dream 10 years ago or when I was at drama school [2010 – 12], I would have struggled to find enough trained actors to anchor a show like this and put it on on a mainstream stage in Auckland."

Pinay takes Infante's own experiences of coming to New Zealand as an 11 year old – "it's 50 fiction, 50 non-fiction and I'm not telling people which is which" – trying to fit into a new society and make sense of where exactly "home" is.

She's set it against the backdrop of two catastrophic events, the 1991 eruption of the Philippines' Mt Pinatubo and the 2010/11 Christchurch earthquakes that she and her family lived through, and woven in Māori waiata, kapa haka, karaoke and Filipino dance to reflect the "kaleidoscopic identity" of many contemporary New Zealanders.

Since the earthquakes, more Filipinos (also known as Pinoys) have arrived in Christchurch to help with the city's rebuild but Infante says when her family came in the early '00s, there were few others around. She remembers being placed in ESOL classes even though she spoke fluent English; of her younger sister being bullied in the primary school playground and being told, by 5 and 6 year olds, to go back home, and of entertaining her disabled cousin by devising her own sketches, dances and songs for him.

"I was really into kapa haka growing up because it was nice being around other brown people who looked like me," says Infante, who won an outstanding newcomer award at last year's Auckland Theatre Awards. "It was the closest I could find to people who treated family the same way that Filipinos did. They didn't do the single portions around the table, they put the pot in the middle so everyone could share. I could talk with my Polynesian friends about sending money back 'home' but when I went 'home' to the Philippines, people would tell me I was a foreigner. It was like being in limbo all the time."

Her play rings true for actors Richard Perillo, who migrated to New Zealand a year ago, and Marwin Silerio, who's been here since he was 5. Perillo, a father of three who plays a dad in Pinay, says the dialogue could be taken from conversations he has with his own children.

Silerio says his father tells stories about arriving in Taupo in 1998 and being the only male Filipino but when he celebrated his 50th birthday recently, more than 100 people – many of them Pinoy – came to the party.

"And now there's even a Filipino outlet in the Elliott Street Stables food court – that's when you start to feel a sense of validation that you're recognised and that's important to how you see yourself."

Pinay also features Donna Dacuno, Lucas Haugh and Matiu Hamuera.


What: Pinay
Where & when: Basement Theatre, tonight – Saturday, August 24