Sinag-tala is Tagalog for “a star’s radiance.” Like the sun that always rises, the irrepressible Sonny scraped together an extra $12,571 to cover the deficit so Sinag-tala Filipino Theater and Performing Arts Association (SFTPAA) could celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2014.
SFTPAA prides itself on being the only regional Filipino American theater and performing arts training organization north of San Francisco. Its 100 active members and volunteers range in age from four-year-old preschoolers to brooding teens to erudite adults. Throughout the year, the group produces the Sinag-tala Theater Ensemble, Sinig-tala Rondalla Program and its marquee program, Sinag-tala: a Theatrical Revue, which includes 12 weeks of free training in the art and business of theater and the performing arts.
Money Woes to Money Wows
Sonny recalls the agony of staring into the financial crevasse. “After we explained the extreme hardship (the doubled rent) was going to pose for us, an empathetic district administrator thought an exception could be made for us to pay a much lesser amount. But in early 2013, we were surprised with a hefty bill, which was not covered by our budget.”
The decision to pay the entire balance on time resulted in a shortfall that lasted late into the year. “Besides this, our December 2013 show followed almost immediately after Typhoon Haiyan. The emotional swell at the time understandably caused some of our patrons to place the relief efforts ahead of us in their holiday charitable giving. Sponsorships and ticket sales were low.”
Without divulging the white knight, ever humble Sonny glosses over the solution and cuts to 2014. “But happily, by the very next year things had returned to normal, thanks to tenacity, robust crowd funding and the School District’s restoration of its original fee schedule.” It seems whatever magic Sonny worked also reformed the miserly school district.
Sonny, an energetic 67, is now gearing up for SFTPAA’s 2015 Big Day of Giving on May 5. He is busy appealing to Positively Filipino readers everywhere to remember his 100 young actors, dancers, musicians and singers when they go online on Cinco de Mayo. Sonny has been motivating new donors to enter their credit card numbers for 25 years.
Commanding with Reserve
Contradictions abound in Sonny's personality. The charismatic leader prefers to keep a low profile with a name that rarely shows up on his nonprofit’s website. Sonny insisted on answering questions by email because he finds phone conversations unnerving. He wasn’t a charming realtor with a windfall to dissipate upon retirement at age 52 but a career government employee with the California Department of Social Services. (The abbreviation “SFTPAA” is a mouthful and unpronounceable acronym that betrays Sonny’s bureaucratic background. “Sinag-tala” is more succinct, but tampering with success can be risky.)
Government jobs and a short stint with American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco represented a long layover between his birth at a military hospital in Fort McKinley in Makati, Rizal, a degree in speech and drama in 1969 from the University of Philippines, a move to the U.S. and Sonny’s final destination in 1990, when he became de facto director of Sinag-tala Theater Project.
“Twenty-five years ago, it was very rare to even find Filipino Americans in theater classes or in the arts administration industry,” Sonny recounts past obstacles. “We enjoy seeing kids do cute things onstage or singing in Tagalog or dancing the tinikling (traditional Filipino tap dancing between two bone-crushing bamboo poles) but practical things like production value and capacity building remain abstract concepts.”
The 2014 “Celebrating Sinag-tala” Filipino Fiesta in Sacramento gave Californians proof that Sonny and SFTPAA had made the right choices and sacrifices from the start. Sonny calls the event a “testament” and explains that the city’s decision to honor Sinag-tala “was an unsolicited and humbling gesture that spoke loudly to some 10,000 attendees of the brand and respect the community attaches to our pioneering work.” In short, he was floored by the outpouring of support and admiration.
Where They Are Now
Sonny commits to memory a long list of SFTPAA alumni who have moved on to notable careers in performing arts.
Joseph “Punky” Larot is familiar to hip-hop fans who wait in long queues to see Jabbawockeez in Las Vegas; Brian Rivera can be seen on Broadway in the latest revival of “The King and I;" Dr. Wendy Mazon is first clarinetist for the Filipino American Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles; Dr. Angela Kuliakanuu Alforque heads the theater and dance program of the Parker School in Hawaii; Christina Mei Chun directs Cosumnes Oaks High School Performing Arts Center in Elk Grove; Maria “Fit Mom” Kang was previously featured in Positively Filipino; and Allyn Marie Ginns is prima ballerina for Dance Now! Miami in addition to her day job as an entertainment attorney.
Those are just the former students who proceeded into entertainment careers. Though delighted, Sonny can be even more longwinded with his roster of alumni who’ve succeeded in other fields, such as athletics, medicine, architecture, engineering, teaching and government.
Sonny’s favorite success story is Dennis Perez, an Air Force recruit who also serves as the volunteer director-choreographer for a Filipino folkloric group in Alaska, where he’s stationed. “Every now and then he seeks my technical advice over the phone,” says Sonny. “I got choked up when he recently told me, ‘I want to be like you, Uncle Sonny.’”
With a Little Help from His Friends
New generations of youngsters of all nationalities await Sonny’s life-transforming influence. Now that he’s a craggy senior citizen, Sonny is happy to have help from wife, Letty, daughter, Angela-Dee, son-in-law, Mario Hill, and granddaughter Malaya.
“There have also been 25 years of remarkable board members, individual artists, supporting groups, donors, parents, youth, technicians, volunteers and alumni who collectively helped Sinag-tala earn its stripes,” he acknowledges.
Glancing back and forth can distract from the present. Today, his and SFTPAA’s main priority is raising funds to flourish through the year. Sonny brings up the Big Day of Giving one more time.
When SFTPAA celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2064, Sonny will be a spry 117 years old. If staying busy aids longevity, he’ll be everywhere in Sacramento supervising the next wave of performers and volunteers while playing the familiar roles of truck driver, board member, dramaturge, instrumentalist, custodian, extra, etc. Positively Filipino will be there to cover Sonny's milestone possibly through neurotransmitters broadcasting from the 746-foot towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. That’s another story we’ll be covering.
All good things must come to an end or in Sonny's case, a holding pattern. In December 2014, he was honored with a retirement party and was appointed Artistic Director Emeritus by the Sinag-Tala Board. The group has begun an executive search for the next CEO and permanent artistic director.
Ideally, an Alforque relative would have taken the helm, but SFTPAA may reach even greater heights with an infusion of new blood. Let's hope that is not just an optimistic spin on a centrifuge of uncertainty. The bottom line: If Sonny could extend his stay until new leadership has materialized, his life's work might gain a solid footing for the next quarter century.
Anthony Maddela writes and edits in Los Angeles. His family of four belongs to the Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society.
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