Accent coach helps bring Milwaukee Rep’s immigration play to life
MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin — Filipino American Joy Lanceta Coronel is taking on dialect coaching duties for the staging of “The Heart Sellers” at Milwaukee Repertory.
The play is directed by Jennifer Chang and features Nicole Javier, both also Filipino Americans. Set in 1973, Javier plays Luna, a newly arrived immigrant from the Philippines.
As their husbands go off to work, life in the USA for Luna and her new friend from South Korea leaves the pair feeling isolated and invisible. They dream of spreading their wings together in the land of opportunity: disco dancing, learning to drive and even a visit to Disneyland.
The play’s protagonists represent the waves of immigrants from Asia at the time who were finally able to enter the US as a result of the passage of the Hart-Celler Act or the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.
The law had removed much of the restrictions from previous immigration legislation, some of which dated all the way back to the late 1870s. (Note: For interested readers, some of these laws and their effects on Filipino immigration to the US is briefly discussed in this reporter’s book Barangay to Broadway: Filipino American Theater History.)
Coronel hails from Louisville, Kentucky. “But as a child, I spent every other summer in the Philippines.” She grew up with an older sister who was a singer who “naturally pivoted to musical theater.”
“I grew up inspired by her work and began to try out different avenues of theater, which led me to pursue acting. In my undergraduate drama training program, I was instantly drawn to the voice and speech class.
“Growing up in a multi-lingual, Filipino household in Kentucky, I was exposed to a variety of speakers, thus making me more attuned to accent and speech work.” She followed a professor’s encouragement to take up a master’s in Voice Studies at Central School of Speech and Drama in London.
Coronel now counts Broadway professionals and Emmy-award-winning actors as part of her clientele in her speech, communication and dialect coaching.
She’s also written a chapter in the recently published book Stages of Reckoning: Antiracist and Decolonial Actor Training on “Societal othering of Asian Americans and its perpetuation through casting.”
But what is dialect coaching, exactly? The term “dialect” has different definitions depending “on who you ask and in which country they reside,” says Coronel.
“For a US dialect coach, ‘dialect’ is most commonly used to describe an accent or regionalism and ‘accent’ describes a foreign accent.”
She explains that, elsewhere, “dialect” usually refers to “language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group.” This definition is one that is used by linguists.
Since Coronel works with clients on both sides of the Atlantic, she switches back and forth among the different definitions and terms based on who she’s working with. “It’s a much-debated topic!” she says, laughing.
Nevertheless, in the US, she has with worked with Ma-Yi Theatre, National Asian American Theatre Company, Comedy Central, Atlantic Theatre Company, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and Connecticut Repertory Theatre, among others.
Currently in rehearsals, Coronel has been working one-on-one with the actors. “We’ve been spending a lot of time researching, discussing, and integrating socio-political events like the Hart Cellar Act and women’s rights, in addition to how women from Korea and the Philippines during the 1970s would think, act, speak, and behave.”
She believes the play is a “beautiful, universal story accessible to people from all backgrounds, and is yet still culturally specific and true to the identities represented.”
For Coronel, the characters’ accents are crucial in the storytelling because “this is an immigration story. The accents represent the character’s native language and culture. It is important for all of us that these accents are not stereotypical, but that their speech is comes from an authentic, humane place.”
“The Heart Sellers” runs Feb. 7 to March 19, 2023. Visit Milwaukeerep.com.