William & Mary

Student actress takes on complex lead role in provocative 'Asuncion'

  • "Asuncion" opens
    "Asuncion" opens  Jolene Mafnas '17 plays the lead role in Jesse Eisenberg's "Asuncion," opening Feb. 28 at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Warnings come with William & Mary theatre’s upcoming production of “Asuncion” advising of explicit language and content, including drug use, sex and race.

Lead actress Jolene Mafnas ’17 smiles knowingly as she talks about the challenge of playing Asuncion. The title character’s name tellingly means Our Lady of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Spanish.

“Asuncion,” written by Jesse Eisenberg, opens Feb. 28 at the Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall Studio Theatre and runs through March 3 and March 15-18.

“Hopefully it gives people feelings, no matter how uncomfortable they may be,” Mafnas said.
The role is well outside her comfort zone as well. She isn’t a theatre student, has only taken Introduction to Beginning Acting and been in one play, and is well aware of the complexities of the characters and material.

The plotline is the reaction of two “open-minded” young men when a young Filipina woman suddenly becomes their roommate. It is a comedy designed to raise questions about stereotypes, gender, race and sexuality.

Both Mafnas and director Francis Tanglao-Aguas, a W&M theatre professor and founding director of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Studies Program, are of Filipino descent and had met before she came to the university. He was a judge and she a contestant in the regional Miss Teen Philippines pageant when Mafnas was in high school in Northern Virginia, and she said his encouragement to check out W&M led to her enrolling.

Mafnas’ ties to the Filipino community include her mother’s active involvement with the Filipino American organization in Northern Virginia, where she coordinates social appearances involving its members and the Filipino Embassy.

Acting after college isn’t on the horizon for Mafnas, who said there are few roles for Asian-Americans and she considers herself very green. She will graduate in December with a double major in kinesiology, with a concentration in public health, and environmental science and policy.

She is considering a future career in sustainability, and though it is very global she said it’s important to take care of issues here in the U.S. as well. She is most interested in agricultural food system issues, and is also passionate about writing.

Mafnas took on the role of Asuncion, she said, because an Asian-American actress was needed and her boyfriend, a theatre major, encouraged her to try out. She read the script and said she “sort of” liked her character, who though thoroughly maligned by the men is not without her own foibles.

Mafnas’ portrayal of Asuncion is challenging, she said, because Tanglao-Aguas wants a more nuanced and complex character than the originally-written role. Mafnas said she felt she was cast for it because of her capability to do that.

“What I enjoy the most working with students on shows is how invested and impassioned they are no matter how far their majors seem to be on the surface from theatre,” Tanglao-Aguas said. “Jolene, for instance, has been relentless and fearless in tackling the role of Asuncion. She has this innate ability to translate the intellectual points we want to make into believable character actions.

“That's why I am not surprised how much she wants our message to come across to the audience. Theatre major or not, she definitely has the instincts of an artist educated in a liberal arts university such as William & Mary.”

Mafnas said that Eisenberg, best known for his role as Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” uses Asuncion as a prop to get his message across.

“And I guess I like his message given that I’m a minority, which is basically how neo-liberal college students tend to exploit cultures for their own self-gratification of trying to prove themselves to be a good person or trying to prove themselves to be open and understanding, or trying to show that they’re educated because they care about this minority,” Mafnas said.

“But at the same time, they automatically make a minority or a different culture a victim in order to play up the fact that, oh, I’m being their savior.”

She added that Eisenberg himself talked of traveling to Cambodia and making assumptions about people living there that were inherently racist.

The show is designed to make the audience uncomfortable and aware of the things it’s laughing at, Tanglao-Aguas said. In “making fun of everyone and everything,” its intent is to provoke awareness.

The set is purposed for that as well, with all the action taking place in a tiny apartment. The audience’s proximity to the characters in the small Studio Theatre will put them close to the cramped quarters.

Mafnas is concerned about how it will all come across, but hopes people will come to see the show.

“It’s a controversial topic,” Mafnas said. “But I think given the type of campus we have, it’s important to be discussed.”