Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero, playwright of Filipinos
Today, Jan. 22, is the 104th birth anniversary of Wilfrido “Freddie” Ma. Guerrero. He passed on 20 years ago, and I wonder: Who remembers what he has contributed to Philippine theater? Who among his colleagues and students at the University of the Philippines Diliman recall him and his work?
Those who were in high school in the 1980s or later would not recognize his name unless it is put in the context of one of their subjects, “Philippine literature in English.” Young students today have likely come across more contemporary writers. Do they know that Guerrero is a National Artist for Theater? How many drama classes have presented his plays in the last 20 years at the theater in UP Diliman that bears his name? How many literature teachers even ask students to read Filipino authors nowadays? And what thought have they given to Philippine theater, which might breed better actors for the movies? Is it likely that academics, artists, writers, and theater patrons have forgotten him?
I haven’t forgotten. Neither have the dozens of thespians of the peripatetic UP Mobile Theater who, to this day, reminisce with pride about that long decade in the ’60s and ’70s when tens of thousands of high school students nationwide were delighted by his plays in English and Filipino. Watching “Wanted: A Chaperon,” “Basketball Fight!,” “Condemned,” “Three Rats” and other Guerrero hits on a hurriedly prepared stage, even with a school’s incomplete logistics, were like a once-in-a-lifetime theater experience for students from Taguig to Tarlac, from Tuguegarao to Tacloban and Tagum.
Timeless humor, unconsummated love, individual moral dilemmas, and honor against all odds—these were portrayed in vivid action with inimitable phrases rendered by actors who were as outstanding in their delivery as they were in their dedication to Philippine theater. Guerrero’s plays were all written in English, and many were also acted out completely in English. But the translation into Filipino was a natural and logical step because the idiom and the colloquialisms were embedded in the original by the man who wrote about people with whom he grew up, people he loved or admired, people for or against whom he had very strong feelings.
I particularly enjoy the plays that connote our introspective nature yet reveal our limitations. I have nurtured in my memory vibrant scenes that evoke our fortitude in suffering inflicted by social conditions and our knack for making fun of ourselves. Guerrero’s plays highlight the key social material of his day, over 50 years ago—such as growing up in the city, or the social divide that many took more seriously then than we do these days. They also illustrate, through stage characters, his understanding of juvenile delinquency, of forgiveness after bitter hatred, and of despair and dignity.
We are familiar and concerned with such themes, but who among us can write about these in a 30-minute play, where no long commentary is imposed, only the author’s biting yet forgiving satire, and his grasp of cultural gems expressed so lucidly in poignant lines by a handful of actors? I find that without the gift that one is born with, this kind of talent can be honed only up to a certain point.
Was Guerrero born too early for the milieu that he discerned with unusual sharpness, such that the literary form that he championed in his lifetime sorely lacked not only patrons but also practitioners? Did he write only about ordinary people because he saw extraordinary things in them, or did he do so because other authors were occupied only with heroes?
When will an artist’s uncanny but crystal-clear interpretation of the culture in which he was immersed become part of the education of its youth?
I have no answers, but I testify that on occasion through all these years, UP Mobile Theater members of the ’60s and ’70s would masterfully recite to one another their favorite episodes of the Guerrero plays that they had performed hundreds of times in Metro Manila and in the countryside. The standout characters include “Francisco” and the “mayordomo,” “Nita” and “Gonzalo”—and there remain many “Pablos” in the national penitentiary.
Until now Guerrero’s actors narrate with no waning luster their personal moments with the father of modern Philippine theater, who inspired audiences through his comedies and taught so many young Filipinos through his tragedies.
Yes, we remember Guerrero, our Freddie, the irreverent director of the UP Dramatic Club and the singular leader of the UP Mobile Theater. He should be remembered, not only for writing 44 plays, or teaching drama at UP Diliman for many years, but also, and most importantly, for his passion in bringing theater to the grassroots of the educational system despite the discomfort of long trips, with little concern for compensation or material reward, with no expectation of recognition from peers and admiration from posterity. He was unique in his complete practice as a playwright, which was the core of his existence. His incisive yet sympathetic views on ordinary people are the wealth that those who remember him and his work have inherited.
Twenty years after his passing, his friends in theater, without any cue, remember Guerrero and treasure this undying friendship with him.
Mark Anthony Migallos was a member of the UP Mobile Theater.
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