Eric “Pogi” Sumangil describes how so many young Filipino-Americans feel when their parents coerce them into participating in the annual Valentine’s Day dance.

They hate the first rehearsal, knowing only that they have been sent here to learn something about their culture and to be schooled in a particular dance.

Then they start to look around at their fellow captives and realize what they have in common.

“You see that all these kids are like me,” said Sumangil. “It’s completely freeing.”

The annual dance has played such a significant role in Sumangil’s life that he wrote a play exploring Filipino-American identity through the lens of an event that draws the community together.

“What we never expected to gain was the friendship,” said Sumangil of the dance. “It wasn’t until the ball that I learned there are so many other Filipino kids.”

Randy Reyes directs Sumangil’s play, “The Debutante’s Ball,” which opens Saturday at History Theatre in St. Paul.

Reyes is artistic director of Mu Performing Arts and a fellow Filipino-American. His sister, Stephanie Bertumen, plays the central character of Ana, who struggles to find the balance between assimilating into white Minnesota culture and retaining her traditions.

Sumangil wrote the play as an homage to the Filipino generation that told him when he was young, “You’ll appreciate this when you get older.” His godmother, a character in the play, was the first chair of the ball in 1978 and continued to organize and choreograph the dance through the late 1990s. She died in 2007, so this is Sumangil’s eulogy for her.

Distinct within Asia

The Philippines occupy a specific role in the East Asian landscape. “The Pearl of the Orient Sea,” as it has been known poetically, is largely defined by its Spanish colonial past. For more than three centuries, legions from Spain occupied the island nation and intermarried with the local population. Distinct from other Asian countries, the Philippines (named for Spanish King Philip II) was converted to Catholicism.

When the United States steamed into Manila in 1898, Americans took control of the seventh-most-populous nation in Asia.

“Spain brought Catholicism and America brought democracy to a place that I don’t think should have either,” said Reyes. “We’re like the Jamaica of the Asian world. We sing, drink, eat, get outside on the beaches because we’re an island.”

Actually, 7,000 islands, with more than 92 million people — most of whom speak English (the second official language along with Tagalog). The large number of English speakers has created a call-center boom in metropolitan Manila and Quezon City. Reyes said that on a trip back home (he was born there) he was amazed that large numbers of middle-class workers celebrated happy hour in the morning because they work shifts that begin at 9 p.m. — to sync up with American time zones.

At the same time, there is entrenched poverty and a government that is elected more on popularity, money and advertising. They learned well from the Americans.

People are one of the Philippines’ greatest exports. Filipino-Americans are the second largest Asian group in the United States (after Chinese). Expatriates send money home and have found success in the medical profession and software and computer fields.

“We’re a humble people, we don’t want to stick out,” said Reyes. “We blend in because we’re good at it.”

Wrestling with fitting in

Reyes grew up in a Filipino neighborhood in Los Angeles. In high school, though, he disassociated himself from his heritage, even ignoring asister in the school hallways. That has flipped, he said. At his 20th class reunion, he hung out with the Filipinos, rather than his popular white friends.

“My Asian identity has grown significantly,” he said.

Bertumen, 17 years younger than her brother, grew up in Salt Lake City and went to Catholic school. Religion was more of a common denominator in a fairly tolerant situation and she said friends would say to her: “I don’t even think of you being different.” she said.

She also wanted to be like them. She didn’t have the desire to be connected to Asia. She had no debutante ball in the Filipino community — although she had an 18th birthday party with 18 boys, 18 girls, 18 roses, 18 candles and a cotillion.

“It felt like a wedding, without a groom,” she said.

Bertumen’s adolescence mirrors the central dramatic question in Sumangil’s play. Her character, Ana, lives in a family that wants to be assimilated in American culture and not involved in a lot of Filipino events.

Sumangil said the play follows six young adults in different places and how they grow through the event — which is designed to help identify young leaders in the community.

“The play is not factual, per se, but 80 to 90 percent of the stories are grounded in truth,” he said. “They’re synthesized from real events.”

While there is always pressure to represent adults, Sumangil said he wants the play to be seen through “the eyes of a 17-year-old,” just as he was once. At the same time, he betrays those initial impressions he formed when he went to his first ball 20 years ago. He knows his play needs to satisfy his parents’ generation, too.

“There is pressure from elders to get it right,” he said.

Some things cross all cultural boundaries.