POC Ole Theater’s last show of the season, “Aling Nena’s Sari-Sari Store,” intensified the homesickness that many international students on campus are feeling. The play was written and directed by Ruby Reyes ’23. It was a beautifully created and delicately designed balance of nostalgia and homesickness, family, sacrifice, and the uncertain nature of decision-making. All of this was intertwined with the Philippines’ unfortunate political and social climate and the choices it forces people to make.
The play follows Aling-Nena, played by Paulina Morera Quesada ’24, as she makes a difficult decision to move from the Philippines to the U.S. for her family. The play also focuses on her fracturing relationship with her husband, Tatay Bertie — played by Ange Muhoza ’22, and separation of their two daughters, Teresita and Rosario — played by Besna Erol ’25 and Hnukusha Vue ’25, respectively. The story is interspersed with flashbacks of their early life in the Philippines.
The first scene of the play was quite bland on paper. However, seeing it in action hit me with a huge wave of nostalgia. The stage was bathed in a warm yellow light, the adults were huddled on the stage going about daily trifles, the parents were watching the children as they ran around the compound, laughter from the children and music from the radio permeated the air — the scene radiated comfort.
“There was always a radio playing music everywhere you went in the Philippines,” Reyes said. Music is a large part of Reyes’ memories of the Philippines. The play’s name itself comes from the song “Tindahan Ni Aleng Nena” by Eraserheads, a Filipino rock band. The song gave birth to the idea of the character of Aling Nena.
In Morera-Quesada’s words, Aling Nena is “a strong, but very sad character.” Aling Nena moves to the U.S. to work so she can afford medical care for her mother, played by Lerato Mensah-Aborampah ’22. Tatay Bertie is unhappy with the decision, and their marriage begins to fracture due to distance and ideological differences. Lola Ima dies while Aling Nena is still in the U.S., robbing her of the chance to see her mother for the last time.
Reyes wanted to portray the complexity of a female character through Aling Nena. “I think about a line from Aling Nena’s monologue
‘Our lives in the Philippines’ necessitate a mother’s sacrifice.” A woman has to give so much of herself up. Aling Nena had dreams too, but she had to become less complex to cater to everyone’s needs. She sacrificed her dreams. Her decision to stay in the U.S. brought back her agency, and that multidimensional complexity,” Reyes says. Reyes centered the play around women. However, she gave the last word in the play to Tatay Bertie, a man, “to portray the fact that patriarchy still has the last word.”
While the play captured the nuances of family and society, it also showed that issues of nationality are intertwined with personal life. Aling Nena moves to the U.S. because she cannot earn enough money in the Philippines, and her brother, Tito Cardo — played by Neung Chalernphon ’24, is killed in the drug war. Rosario moves to the U.S. following Cardo’s death, which separates the sisters and forces Teresita to choose between staying in the Philippines with her father and moving to the U.S. with her mother.
The play’s end might have disappointed the audience — Teresita was struggling to choose between her father and mother, between a life in the Philippines and a life in the U.S., between a feeling of national belonging and being with family in an alien place. The audience were left to wonder how Teresita made the choice.
“We all crave finality and closure because it’s something we don’t have. I didn’t give this story closure because it wouldn’t have done justice to it,” Reyes said. “As international students, we are always faced with choices that we wouldn’t rather make, our decisions are based on the opinions of many people and ‘what-if’s’ are always present — I wanted to communicate that.”