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‘Theater and politics are inseparable’

05:03 AM September 10, 2019

In a just world, the Marcoses wouldn’t be walking free today; at the very least, they would be locked up someplace, paying for all the lives they harmed and all the money they stole from this country during their two-decade-long tyranny.

But this is not a just world, and so you have the wife of the dead dictator still roaming free despite (finally) being convicted of corruption, or his son almost winning the vice presidency, or one of his daughters showing up ever so casually at the premieres of plays and art exhibits.

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That last bit doesn’t usually land the limelight, mostly because of the ephemeral, insular, small-scale nature of such events. But it happened again last week — so soon after that incident at Ateneo de Manila University in April, when said daughter graced the inauguration of the new amphitheater, the resulting, deafening backlash leading to the resignation of a top-brass school official.

At Friday’s opening night of the latest play by Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas, the official performing arts group of the University of the Philippines Diliman, one of the audience members was no less than that same daughter herself. The uproar that ensued at the venue, and which quickly seeped into social media, was nothing if not expected.

Caught on record as well via The Philippine Collegian, the university’s student-run publication, was the play’s director telling off the student-protesters that “UP should remain a democratic space.”

In a sense, the director had a point: UP is, indeed, a democratic space. For the image of the university as a homogenous body of truth defenders and freedom warriors is but a myth. It is no secret that, while being home to the fiercest activists and patriots of this country, UP is also a nest of loyalists and defenders of despotic political families past and present. There is probably no better microcosm of Philippine society today.

It is ironic that in this school that birthed some of the greatest Filipino protest art — the university theater scene itself responsible for many important, galvanizing pieces — a spawn of the despot can just enter as she pleases, thereby spitting on the memory of all those who bravely, and fatally, resisted the Marcos regime.

It is doubly ironic when you consider that one of UP’s most recent stage hits happened to be Floy Quintos’ “The Kundiman Party,” about a fictional world-renowned Filipino songstress who spurned the patronage of the Marcoses.

Anyone who remembers knows how that family used art as a perfume to please the middle class and fool the poor (see: the Manila Film Center). Still, today, there remains a multitude of artists who, having benefited from the Marcoses’ patronage in the past (some of them children at the time), persist in their blind loyalty to the family—or at the very least, refuse to bite the proverbial hand that fed them, even if that hand butchered and disappeared thousands of their countrymen.

In this, it is helpful to remember what the playwright Rody Vera said in an interview earlier this year: “Theater and politics are inseparable, not only in content but also in form.” He was talking about his new play premiering on the UP stage, “Nana Rosa,” which tackled the conveniently ignored history of Filipino comfort women during the Japanese occupation—but he might as well have been talking about any other play, in any other time.

Theater, as with all art, does not exist in a vacuum. It can have far-reaching consequences, and the ability to precipitate change on a national platform. As such, plays do not begin and end with the rise and fall of their curtains; what we see onstage matters just as much as everything and everyone else that surrounds it offstage—who writes the play, who works in it, who finances it, who gets invited to see it first.

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The craft may take on many colors, but when it comes to issues as integral to the Filipino consciousness as the Marcos dictatorship, the conversation can only be in black and white. In this climate of blatant historical revisionism, civil liberty should not and should never be invoked as an excuse to fraternize with the biggest crooks in this nation’s history. There shouldn’t be room for spineless neutrality.

What, then, has UP done, or is doing? Not much, by the looks of it. In fact, this isn’t the first time the Marcoses have figured in the university’s arts scene, either in name or in person. The issue, I predict, will proceed as such issues have mostly proceeded in this country: First, the outrage. Then, the discourse. Then, the amnesia. Then, the air kisses and bonhomie.

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Vincen Gregory Yu ([email protected]) is a medical doctor, fictionist, poet and theater reviewer for Inquirer Lifestyle-Theater.

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