By Sami Pritchard
Ricamora (left) and Llana flank Joan Rivers | Llana celebrating Pride this year in New York City
Jose Llana and Conrad Ricamora, the male leads in Here Lies Love at New York’s Public Theater — a raucous pop opera by David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, and Fatboy Slim — started their adult lives in a rather typical place: the closet. Theater may be more diverse than TV or Hollywood, but it still can’t be easy for a Filipino actor (or half Filipino in Ricamora’s case) to find leading roles. If the actor is also gay, and out, those odds are smaller still.
“I got my first show on Broadway when I was a freshman in college, and suddenly I was thrust into a world where I was being cast in roles that were very masculine and sexual,” says Llana, who plays Ferdinand Marcos. “It was very convenient for me, publicly, to say that I was single — I was worried that if a casting director found out I was gay, it would affect my ability to be cast.”
That was in 1996, and, suffice it to say, Llana has long since surrendered his anxiety for pride. Today he is neither single nor discreet. The success of Here Lies Love, in which the audience plays the role of the Filipino people — at first seduced and then increasingly appalled by the destructive Marcoses — has not gone unnoticed in the Philippines. “I’ve had interviews with magazines and newspapers in Manila, which is a whole different world of coming out,” he says. “By proudly stating, as a matter of fact, that I have a partner of nine years whose name is Eric, I help chip away some of the prejudice in the Philippines.”
For Ricamora — playing Marcos’s political rival, Benigno Aquino — coming out was complicated by his background, growing up on air bases, where he funneled his energies into learning to be a tennis pro. “It was such a machismo culture I grew up around,” he recalls. “There was never an encouragement of a life in the arts. I wasn’t even exposed to that world, let along being gay or out. None of those things occurred to me, that they even existed.”
That changed when Ricamora visited the Hamptons in 2001 for an under-the-radar tennis tournament. He failed to make the cut and found himself back in New York before flying home to Charlotte, N.C. It was Pride weekend. “Here I am walking through New York City during Gay Pride, and it’s like this
huge explosion of gayness and acceptance, and all these things I’d been ashamed of for so long,” he says. “I remember seeing Hillary Clinton — she didn’t have this big float, just a small entourage and no signs — and thinking, Oh, wow, the world is going to start changing.”
Instead of returning to Charlotte, Ricamora extended his stay in New York by three days, before flying to Atlanta, where he bunked with a friend and quit tennis. “I got a job waiting tables, wrote in my journal every day, and went through a discovery of who I was and what I really wanted to do in life,” he says.
Ricamora in a scene from 'Here Lies Love' | Photo by Joan Marcus
It was in Atlanta that Ricamora recalled an acting class he’d taken as a psych major, where he’d discovered a monologue from Lemon Sky by Lanford Wilson. Its central theme, of meeting a biological parent for the first time, spoke to Ricamora, whose mother left his father when he was 7 months old. “I’m not really an extroverted guy, but I felt I could stand onstage and speak with complete certainty and authority through this other person,” he says. “I just felt the electricity of telling this story that was similar to mine but wasn’t mine.”
Today Ricamora feels the electricity of telling a different story — one that resonates with his father, who left the Philippines as a child. “He’s seen the play about 11 times,” he says. “He loves it.” Although his father rarely talks about his childhood in Manila, Ricamora’s stepmother recently surprised him by revealing that his great-uncle was secretary of finance under Aquino’s widow, Corazon Aquino, who came to power after the Marcoses were swept from office in 1986. “So I’m learning a lot about my own background through the course of this show.”
As for Llana, he takes the fact that he and Ricamora play rivals in a contest for the same woman’s love as evidence that society is changing for gay actors. “The misconception that an out actor can’t play a certain part is being shattered every time another gay actor adds their name to the list of actors who have come out,” he says.