‘Pagsambang Bayan, the musical’: liturgy of the masses
In 1977 I watched the staging of Bonifacio Ilagan’s “Pagsambang Bayan” at the University of the Philippines and was blown away. Martial rule was then in effect under the Marcos dictatorship. But Ilagan, just freed from detention, came up with the daring opus. That version was directed by Behn Cervantes who was rearrested and jailed soon after.
After 40 years, “Pagsambang Bayan” is again on stage, this time as a musical and directed by Joel Lamangan and performed by Ang Tag-ani Performing Arts Society. Ilagan is this updated version’s scriptwriter, librettist and executive producer, supported by composers and arrangers. Watching it last week at the Irwin Theater of the Ateneo University brought a rush of memories that stoked still burning nationalistic embers.
Unlike “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the hit rock musical based on Jesus’ last days, or “Godspell” that tackled, through songs, the parables in the Bible, “Pagsamba” is a “mass,” with the songs, prayers and liturgical structure (all in Filipino, of course) hewing close to the Holy Mass as Catholics and others of allied churches know it. (A working definition of liturgy is “the official, public worship of the Church,” with emphasis on the word “public.”)
From start to finish, the musical tries to get the viewer on worship mode, but not in prayerful self-absorption. The opening song invites: “At tayo ay maglalakbay/ At tayo ay sasapit rin/ Doon sa Lupang Pangakong/ Nakalaan sa may pananalig.” (Let us journey together, and we will reach the Promised Land prepared for those who believe.)
It is a common journey toward freedom of an oppressed people. Their call: Come be with us.
The cast as worshippers/singers represents different sectors: the youth, urban poor, indigenous peoples, religious, workers, human rights victims, professionals, farmers, with some of them doubling as characters in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And there is the priest, the main celebrant. (Conrado Calnea Ong III, a seasoned tenor, was the priest when I watched. Eric Cabrera alternates.)
The musical has the basic structure of the real Mass with some tweaking. Except for a couple of Mass songs by Jesuit Eduardo Hontiveros that lend familiarity, the rest of the music are originals.
The prologue: a video of last year’s funeral procession of the long-dead dictator Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Cemetery for Heroes) as justified by President Duterte. Flashbacks on the 1986 People Power that ousted the dictator and the Marcos family’s eventual return.
Then a discourse on Mr. Duterte’s winning the presidency and his bloody war on drugs and the killing of more than 10,000 persons.
A bamboo crucifix is brought in amid a rousing chorus of voices, and the Mass begins. In one part the people decipher the meaning of Genesis 1:26, what it means to be “in God’s image.” And after the gospel reading about the Good Samaritan, the priest is not able to deliver a homily in the way he knows how. Instead, he listens.
For Catholics and other Christian groups with Eucharistic rites, the Mass is “the central act of worship, the source and summit of Christian life.” The Mass is indeed a great medium or platform for artistic creations. Consider the Masses composed by Faure, Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart, to name a few, and in modern times, Andrew Lloyd
Weber (“Requiem”). From my 1986 visit to Nicaragua I brought home the fiery “Misa Campesina” (Mass of the Peasants) by Carlos Mejia Godoy (I played it just now). But these are all music to be performed in auditoriums and real Masses in churches.
In contrast, “Pagsamba” is a musical stage production, with the stage as altar and the altar as stage. The altar—where the plaints and pains of the world are offered and distilled, where the journey is ended and begun.
The denouement and great reveal: The priest undergoes a dramatic transformation. Ite missa est. The real journey with the masses begins.
Play dates: Sept. 21, CCP Little Theater. 8 p.m.; Sept 22 and 23, 3 p.m., 8 p.m.; Sept. 27, Holy Angel U in Angeles City, 3 and 7 p.m. Tickets available at TicketWorld (8919999) and the CCP box office. Special showings can be arranged.
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