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Celebrating Rizal and plays that rock

To many, the byline of Christine S. Bellen, a professor at Ateneo de Manila University (Admu), may be associated with the “Lola Basyang” series, the subject of her master’s thesis and popularized as a children’s book series and adapted into ballet and a TV show. Bellen also wrote plays for children’s theater, which Peta (or the Philippine Educational Theater Association) has repeatedly performed.

It appears that while we weren’t looking, Bellen has reinvented herself, for her latest book is not a children’s picture book but an impressive collection of five musical plays for children, which have been staged several times.

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It is well-timed that her “Batang Rizal at iba pang dula,” published by the Admu Press, will be launched on June 20 at the Ateneo’s Rizal Library, to mark the hero’s 155th birth anniversary (on June 19).

It must also be noted that the coming of the book just as a new school year is opening makes the coincidence more than auspicious, as it provides a rich resource for teachers to use in literature and communication classes in both elementary and secondary schools.

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How did this transformation in the author come about? Who would imagine that Aurelio Tolentino’s play, “Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas” (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow)—deemed seditious in 1903 and restaged in 1990 by Peta at the Rajah Sulayman Theater—would inspire the young Bellen, then a University of the Philippines freshman, to pursue the writing of drama for children? She no longer remembers any particular scene in Tolentino’s play, only that she was possessed by the power of the genre and how the whole sweep of Philippine history focusing on the Chinese and the Spanish and American colonizers was made so real and so relevant to her.

Recently, Bellen’s interest in drama was rekindled when Peta requested her to turn three of her “Lola Basyang” retellings into musical plays for children. She confesses that while in graduate school, she enjoyed the course on play writing as much as she did the course on short story writing.

She became even more convinced that, aside from books, children need other media for them to appreciate our rich heritage. Books are not easily accessible to them for economic reasons (for where are those public libraries to serve all of us?), and if and when parents purchase books they often buy foreign titles because these are cheaper, more colorful, and with childproof binding. And books have always had competition from television and movies.

Thus, there is the potentially powerful role of theater in the nurturing of the young. The story that unfolds on stage is magical, alive and engaging. Plays can be performed anytime, anywhere, even in the most remote places.

To examine the popularity of Bellen’s musical plays is to examine the themes and issues in society that somehow resonate with the young audience that, for the most part, is difficult to please. Her debut as playwright was with her “Lola Basyang” stories, charming in themselves and made more memorable with music composed by Noel Cabangon.

In “Batang Rizal,” Mayor Rapcu is a government official who misuses public funds and is more interested in erecting monuments rather than the urgently needed classrooms. In “Ang Unang Baboy sa Langit,” based on the original delightful story by Rene Villanueva, the herd of pigs on Babuyan Islands is coerced by their leader to sell their land to a mining corporation. In  “Si Pilandok at ang Bayan ng Bulawan,” the idea of a concerted community initiative against a cruel leader is again explored. “Kules” is based on the Greek myth of Hercules and has the gods and goddesses performing in a perya.

The only play still to be staged is “Hagibis, Ang Tandang na Ayaw Maging Pansabong,” based on a story that Bellen wrote.  It is about a rooster whose main aspiration is to be an opera singer. That play had to be written because the author needed to see Hagibis come alive on stage, singing and dancing.  It is a reassuring storyline for those who struggle in the pursuit of their true aspirations.

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Bellen succeeds because she injects humor and uses pop culture allusions and familiar street language. She writes in Filipino to propagate the national language (and hopes for translations into foreign and other Philippine languages). The dialogue flows even as she writes in a curious mix of English and Filipino. For example, before Hagibis reveals his dream, he sings: “Ayokong maging star of the show/ Ayokong maging bad boy….” In “Kules,” the term “bespren” is freely used, while Datu Usman talks of buying “shades.”

To date, there are very few noteworthy Filipino playwrights for children.  Dr. Nicanor Tiongson, professor emeritus at UP Diliman, is not merely being lavish with praise when he ends his introduction to Bellen’s book with the statement that her plays belong to the same category as those by Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, Edgardo Maranan, and Villanueva.

Bravo to Bellen the playwright, and may others similarly in the thrall of drama be inspired to follow suit and enrich our body of literature for children.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: Jose Rizal, musicals, theater
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