Top or bottom? Play explores what the terms really mean in a relationship
Rick Cornett and George Salazar. | Jeff Lorch

LOS ANGELES—IAMA Theatre Company and the Los Angeles LGBT Center have just completed a run (May 18-June 12) of the world premiere production of Nicholas Pilapil’s The Bottoming Process. The author says, “The play deals with serious issues, like racial stereotypes and power structures, but in the end it’s really a rom-com.”

A theatergoer might challenge that statement, for this dark comedy doesn’t feature the prototypical happy ending, and certainly not a happily-ever-after one either, at least not for the two lead characters. Unless you figure the protagonist’s gradual emotional and psychological growth (toward “learning to come out on top” as Pilapil writes in a program note) is happy enough of a rom-com denouement.

Playwright Nicholas Pilapil. | Michael Palma

I hope large audiences filled the Renberg Theatre in the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center. Unfortunate developments kept me from attending the May 20 performance as originally planned, and then the only date I could make it was closing night. But at least I can contribute these few appreciative remarks which the producer of some future staging can benefit from. It deserves broad national exposure.

The premise is that two gay male writers meet at a shared working space and at first awkwardly, then committedly, fall in love. Milo (George Salazar) is a fledgling Filipino-American writer in his late 20s with a small following for his witty commentary on Twitter. John (Rick Cosnett), in his early 40s, is a famous WASPy Nebraska-born novelist with a series of YA bestsellers to his name, though now he’s struggling to branch out into more mature genres. (Click here to read bios of all the artists.) As they mate, date, and cohabitate (in John’s more elegant digs), they grapple with issues of race, sex, power, and the model minority myth.

Is it pre-ordained that the well-established Caucasian guy (the pinnacle of all romantic desire in our racial-capitalist culture?) will be the top—the insertive partner—in this relationship? Or might it also have to do with Milo’s writings (screened onstage before and as the play ensues) where he invites his admirers to forget about the beautiful “almond eyes” and take note of his beautiful ass and butthole? John proceeds so unhurriedly with the courtship that after a few weeks Milo is prompted to blurt out, “Why haven’t you tried to fuck me yet?”

Only in time does Milo start figuring out that apart from his own erotic inclinations, there’s also a racial angle to the relationship, where in Western culture, as an Asian-American, he is expected to be the feminized “lotus bottom.”

We’ve only begun to explore all the complications. But let’s pause for a moment to think about the concept of top and bottom in any intimate relationship. With heterosexual couples, it’s generally the case that the man, as the insertive partner, is the “top”—but we don’t often hear that kind of terminology. The man is still presumed, in our culture, to be very much the top, not just in bed, but in society generally. Why, a woman in America no longer even has final say in her own reproductive options!

But when it comes down to individual situations, the variations are infinite, and men are not always in control. To the degree that women have become more empowered, men may not even be the principal breadwinners in many families, nor the most educated, nor even masters of the bedroom, where women have learned to be more assertive in making their own demands. In many marriages and other romantic arrangements, concepts of top and bottom hardly apply: Duties and authority are often divided up, or equally shared, without assumptions of who’s the boss or who has the final word. The aggrieved men of the racist so-called Christian nationalist movement feel the ebb of their power most keenly.

In same-gender relationships, such variations also exist. One partner may be the acknowledged top, the other the understood bottom, but in many cases where non-binary thinking prevails, egalitarianism with shared or alternating roles is the dominant principle.

Director Rodney To. | Kevin McIntyre

“What does it take to have a successful modern-day relationship?” asks director Rodney To, who is also IAMA’s associate artistic director. “Intergenerational, interracial, and identity politics have been explored in plays before, but the gaps now seem wider than ever because things like social media have come into play. Here we have two seemingly compatible people who love each other, so what keeps getting in the way?”

The Bottoming Process supplies its own alternative reflection on interracial dating and marriage by contrast to another couple: Milo’s dear friend Rosie (Julia Cho), a successful Korean-American actress who can also relate to the stereotyping of Asian characters that she often encounters, and her fiancé Daniel (Ty Molbak), who is emotionally sensitive and politically evolved and a gorgeous hunk of man (I missed what he does for work).

So Julia, just as hip to racism and chauvinism as Milo is, manages to negotiate her partner’s whiteness with enough irony and flexibility that she is able to advance their relationship by stages relatively smoothly. Perhaps one could say, from what we see of their relationship, that she is more the top in it than he is. He’s the type, for example, who volunteers that “Colorblindness is racist.” At the same time, he reminds us that he is not exactly “white,” whatever that means, because he is a mix of Irish and German, making the point that nationality, culture, language, position at the top or bottom of society, can be a shifting phenomenon, as Irish, Italians, Slavs, Jews—and Germans, too, especially during wartime—can attest. Not to mention “whites” who are gender nonconformists, such as our handsome, rich John, who had his own painful struggles that he asks to be recognized.

Julia Cho and Ty Molbak. | Jeff Lorch

(On a personal note, while I know I’m unmistakably taken for “white” or “Caucasian” in public, it’s not an identity I gladly claim. As a Jew whose people in my own lifetime were thrown into ovens by people who considered themselves master-race Aryans, and who are still attacked as they gather in synagogues, I take no pride in thinking of myself as “white”—and certainly not ideologically white in the sense that today’s MAGA supporters define it. Nor do I think I’m exceptional as a Jew thinking this way.)

Julia has also played an important part in Milo’s literary education by introducing him to the novels of Jane Austen, whom she quotes liberally with a charming British accent. Austen, of course, was all about young ladies finding the right man to marry. For her, an age difference of even 20 years or so was no impediment. In her books, questions of race never surfaced. The proper suitor just had to be the right class.

Julia and Milo compare notes about the white men they’re both dating. Her advice to him: “Let him colonize your native land.” Whereas he’s sort of stuck in his mind: “Being mad at white people is my brand.” To which Julia responds, “You give white people too much power.”

George Salazar, Anita Adusumilli, Rick Cosnett. | Jeff Lorch

The character of John’s literary agent, the self-identified “brown” Charlie (Anita Adusumilli), who will also become Milo’s agent and guide both of them toward huge successes with their consecutive books about interracial relationships, is a critical cog in the drama. She has a natural genius for spotting and developing literary careers, but hey, it’s her job, and a lucrative one at that. So in this country, in this market, all this philosophizing about race, in theory or in fiction, can itself become a generator of profit. And isn’t that—wealth, fame, prestige, movie deals—ultimately more important than your ethnic background or your sexual identity?

And isn’t that really what defines top and bottom? What happens in the bedroom in the end may barely mean much of anything.

These much bigger implications are clearly what attracted IAMA to producing Pilapil’s elegantly nuanced work. “We saw the potential from the jump,” To says. “It’s both multilayered and very funny.”

The creative team for The Bottoming Process included scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo; lighting designer Josh Epstein; sound designer Jeff Gardner; projections designer Nicholas Santiago; costume designer Elena Flores; properties designers Michael O’Hara and Rye Mandel; intimacy director Carly DW Bones; and casting director Jordan Bass. IAMA ensemble member Adrián González was associate director. Tiffany Moon was lead producer, Katharine Means co-producer, Patricia Sutherland the production manager, and Court Rhodes the production stage manager.

I just know that The Bottoming Process will not disappear with this first production. It’s an ideal mix of humor and sobriety; it’s clever, savvy, and consummately contemporary (I admit I did not relate to all the references to current pop culture, but I think most of the audience was able to).

If at first glance the main relationship between Milo and John is unsuccessful, owing to racial and cultural issues, we are at least hopeful about Rosie and Daniel. The playwright balances an informed pessimism with an equally valid optimism as he looks forward. He must know, as do we all, how ubiquitous interracial and intercultural relationships and families are in today’s America, so we can only draw comfort from the breakdown of prejudice and stereotypes. Yes, there’s sociology and race theory. There’s also the capacity of the human heart.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.