Traversing the Vancouver performing arts scene as a person of colour

Rachel D’Sa // arts and culture editor

To Jolene Bernardino, the world of the performing arts is finally changing. “I think that Vancouver especially, we’re growing in the sense of what we see and what we think as the ‘box’ that Asian people need to play a specific type, Hispanic people need to play a specific type, Caucasian people need to play a specific type,” said the Vancouver performer and second-year Musical Theatre student at Capilano University.

As a young Filipina woman, Bernardino quickly learned what the industry was used to and is now working away from. “First getting into theatre I remember having a very serious talk with my mom because she was very nervous about me being successful, because the roles that I wanted to go out for were traditionally played by Caucasian actors and actresses,” said Bernardino. However, she stated that she believes that it’s our duty as a generation to not conform to these traditional standards but to instead break free.

Though her mother never pursued music, it was her phenomenal singing that inspired Bernardino from the start. “I’ve been performing ever since, oh my gosh, probably since I was out of the womb,” she laughed. She additionally noted that her mother sang to her throughout her childhood, later encouraging her to become more active in church and school choirs.

It was at the age of around 10 to 12 when Bernardino discovered her passion for musical theatre. Around the same time, she also found herself deeply connected to Julie Andrews, an icon in the industry, as well as Lea Salonga, a fellow Filipina artist who was introduced to Bernardino by her mother. Though she took a few performance lessons, Bernardino credits the majority of her initial knowledge in the performing arts to her dedication to listening and singing along to music tracks and carefully watching videos.

Currently, Bernardino is preparing to star in Two Fly Productions’ upcoming show, Little Miss Glitz, which she also finds herself connected to on a personal level. “I get to star with Jenn [Jennifer] Suratos, who is also a Filipino actress in the community. When usually, quite possibly, roles like this would’ve been played by any other kind of race, I find that the opportunities that I have been given so far in my career as a performer, I’ve been very privileged in playing roles that I wouldn’t have traditionally played maybe a few years ago,” she said.

The production will play at Performance Works on Granville Island from Mar. 16 to 31, and includes various CapU personnel including faculty member, Christopher King (original music development). The plot line follows the story of Isabella, a pageant first-timer who ultimately learns the cutthroat side of the game. The musical parody of child beauty pageants takes audience members on an interactive journey, giving them the power to determine who is crowned “Little Miss Glitz”. “There are also these amazing costumes that another Cap grad, Jacklyn, put together. In a pageant there’s usually a glitz round, an outfit-of-choice and a talent portion and with [my character] Jaylene [Darlene], her costumes are bizarre. I get this big, poofy, pink cupcake dress in one, and then I come out in this Madonna-inspired cone bra in the other, it’s ridiculous, I love it, it’s so over-the-top,” she said.

This was not her first encounter with the pageant scene, however. A few years ago, it was Bernardino’s turn to take on the crown in a hometown competition in New Westminster. “It’s kind of funny to tap my background into who I was and kind of approaching it a different way, going into the complete opposite of who I am as Jolene, and transforming into this monster, Jaylene. I love it, she’s so sassy and so dramatic and I think that I’m both of those things.” She noted that out of the five contestants in the production, she believes her character to be the most over controlling and likely to do whatever it takes to attain the crown. She also finds it funny that though the character’s name is incredibly close to her own, the two individuals are far from similar in personality.

In addition to the humour of the show, the production also offers a heart-warming message of self-acceptance. It deals with the coming of age of a girl wrestling with pressure put on by society to change herself to be what is considered beautiful – a story that Bernardino can relate to. “Personally, there’s always been that underlying tension of ‘am I doing the right thing? Am I going to be perfect enough? Am I going to be good enough?’ Like even at a young age, just seeing who I saw on TV, I always felt like I needed to change,” she said.

Bernardino plans to apply her personal experience and feelings to her upcoming work in the production as well as post-graduation. Having taken a course at Douglas College for Behaviour Intervention, and working with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), she has founded her goal to teach those with disabilities to get in touch with a passion in their lives. She hopes to one day bring her skills together to encourage others dealing with different types of barriers to not let them get in the way of doing what they love or discovering something that may not have been apparent to them before. Through finding courage and trust in herself to pursue her own dreams and overcome stigmas, Bernardino wishes to inspire others dealing with the same kind of societal pressures and aid in breaking down the wrongful wall.

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