The Making of a Filipino Aesop
By Luna Sicat
Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio grew up in Binondo, Manila. Theater halls when she was growing up were alive with zarzuela, vaudeville and movie shows. Her family home was in the vicinity of the performance district. Young as she was, she would linger by the entrance of the old Manila Opera House and join the throng of audiences entering the venue to watch the presentation.
At home, after dinner, she and her siblings would gather together to listen to their father’s stories. Her father also introduced her to the living rhythm of folk theater every time he took her to stagings of the senakulo and dupluhan. Her mother, on the other hand, introduced her to the zarzuela. When World War II began, the informal education of Lapeña Bonifacio as playwright and theater artist continued. She read Shakespeare’s complete plays. As a war evacuee, she delighted herself by shaping figures with the clumps of clay found at the air-raid shelter. She learned to sew. All these were steps in honing her artistic skills as a designer.
Her talent as a designer blossomed at the University of the Philippines where she majored in English and designed theater productions like Virginia Moreno’s Glass Altar, which opened doors to bigger and more challenging works like the set for the International Dance Festival at UP. In 1965, she was awarded a Fulbright Smith-Mundt scholarship at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where she earned her MA Theater Arts degree. Her orbit expanded as she discovered her talent as a dramatist, winning playwriting contests with Sepang Loca (1957) and Rooms (1958). From the US university stage, she finally found the locus of her artistry as playwright and cultural agent in the 1970s. She was a scholar destined to be awarded with fellowships in Asia, particularly Japan and Southeast Asia.
The cornerstone of her life and art was the establishment of Teatrong Mulat, an organization of puppeteers that produces original children’s plays in Filipino. She writes the materials staged by Teatrong Mulat, and also serves as its artistic director. When she received the ASPAC fellowship in 1973, she studied drama and theater forms. One of the indigenous forms of puppetry that caught her attention was the Japanese bunraku, named after a master puppeteer in Osaka. Bunraku tells stories with musical accompaniment, and the stories are acted out by puppets. The whole body with the sculpted face and wooden limbs performs. Every movement emanates from a vocabulary of meanings. As she watched the performances, she was stirred so much that she decided to employ puppetry in the Philippines to entertain and teach art to young Filipinos.
The materials of her play derive from the rich trove that is the native Filipino imagination. She is called the Filipino Aesop because of the theme of productions that borrow from the power of the fable. The puppet’s face has limitations, but the Teatrong Mulat puppeteers are able to overcome them and make the story blossom onstage. The puppet manipulator is visible, breaking the illusion from the start. This way, young audiences know that real people move the wooden and fabric bodies. They discern that the show is an artifice as well as a material from the real. The sculpted face matches, or sometimes surpasses, the human actor in expressing profound emotions as in tragedy.
This is the outstanding trait of Lapeña Bonifacio’s Papet Pasyon, which is similar to the senakulo as it borrows from the narrative of the passion of the Christ. She uses distinctive puppets in Teatrong Mulat productions, with features akin to the Filipino skin color and facial expression. Teatrong Mulat productions also tickle the humorous side of the Filipino. In Abadeja: Ang Ating Sinderela, the word atin (our) is an important appropriation of the Cinderella trope from the global fairytale. Here the fairy godmother does not take human form. It can be a wondrous fish, a supernatural rooster or a magical tree that bears jewels. Only Abadeja can pick up the jewels, which she can only use in helping the needy. The power of the ring from the magical tree does not work if the recipient is not deserving. The mismatched recipient and ring make the audiences laugh as they recognize what the Filipino has known for a long time: the ring, like the crown, on its own volition seeks only the rightful finger or head. Nothing can force it to bless anyone except the worthy or the good-hearted one. Because of the staging of plays like Abadeja, contemporary dramatists or even the young generation get inspired to adopt the folkloric imagination in their writings and productions.
INSPIRATION FROM TRADITIONAL THEATER
Enthusiasm in writing plays for children rose because of the rich resources Lapeña Bonifacio has mined. The Filipino audience rediscovered the magic of puppets, senakulo, duplo and community theater. This revival corresponded with the prevailing spirit of the time, when intellectuals, artists and cultural workers aspired to embody the formation of Filipino identity in their works and in varied iterations in the arts.
Aside from bunraku, Lapeña Bonifacio’s focus on the productions of traditional Southeast Asian theater, particularly the Indonesian wayang golek and wayang kulit, served her burgeoning imagination well. In 1976, she received a Ford Foundation Fellowship which gave her the opportunity to watch and observe the traditional theater of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, including the street operas of Singapore.
The concepts she learned from staging and playwriting in the wayang tradition were applied in the Philippines. Like the Indonesians, the kind of theater which fires the indigenous imagination of the Filipino takes mythic events like legends as its subject, usually in simple yet lyrical language, encompassing in its effects. Like the Indonesians, the Filipino audience or the public participates in the creation of meaning because the play taps into the spirit of oral tradition and the cycle of communal life. The plays are a reflection of and a dialogue with the native self.
The concept of the ephemeral is distinct in plays and productions designed for children, says Lapeña Bonifacio. The ephemeral stage of childhood coincides with the ephemerality of the innocent mind: primarily creative, open to ideas that may be viewed by the cynical as superficial, foolish or crazy. Being open, the play obtains power from the imagination. According to her, the young must continue recognizing pain or weakness, and especially joy and love, as a continuous flow of life.
Theater heals. Because Teatrong Mulat heeds the public call, they bring their productions to auditoriums, classrooms, libraries and plazas outside Manila. When Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1990, Teatrong Mulat visited lahar-stricken communities. The puppets were instrumental in guiding young people to heal themselves from the trauma of disaster. Despite the roads and highways buried in compacted lahar, Teatrong Mulat braved the ash-covered terrain. Hundreds of young people flocked to their shows. After the show, they felt energized by the powerful message of the presentation.
Lapeña Bonifacio’s play Ang Bundok was spot on with the ancestral rights issue in lands where indigenous communities reside as well as the community’s struggle against outsiders bent on conquering their territory. This modern zarzuela won third prize in the National Zarzuela Writing Competition in 1971-72. In Ang Bundok, as the roars of bulldozers that dig down mountains are heard, the native people unite through the leadership of Umangal and Bugan who shout in unison, “This is our home.” The play’s antennae were attuned to the violation against the indigenous people’s rights, which would run on into the historic Macli-ing Dulag’s protest against the building of the Chico Dam in 1978. This zarzuela was prophetic as it projected the unity of the indigenous people in slamming the Chico River dam construction that would inundate their communities and endanger their lives and memories.
Lapeña Bonifacio successfully combined in Ang Paglalakbay ni Sisa the aesthetics of the Japanese Noh drama with Jose Rizal’s familiar Noli Me Tangere. Her adaptation can be considered as a new creation. Padre Salvi, Sisa and her sons Basilio and Crispin are still in the world of the Noli story. But her imagination appropriates the idea of a “lost soul” conventionally employed in Noh dramatic plots. Noh embodies the fusion of the simple and the complex. Two characters are found in Noh: shite or the protagonist and waki or the deuteragonist. According to Keiko I. MacDonald, a holy acolyte usually represents the waki and is typically accompanied by two minors who act as its corporal extensions.
In Paglalakbay, there are two characters that represent common persons: the hunter and the fisher. Salvi’s conscience torments him, relentlessly gnaws at his thoughts, becoming his version of hell. He meets the hunter and the fisher down by the river who tell of the fate of Sisa’s family in relevant episodes. The minimalist look of the stage is hair-raising in this play, with darkness as great presence, occasionally washed in light when Sisa as ghost teases, condemns or repeatedly kills Father Salvi. The design is consistent with the theme of Paglalakbay as manifested in the clash of two Noh realities: it could be a dream or an actuality, the world of the dead or the world of the living. Sisa does not take the human form anymore—she is now a floating spirit with yellow jusi cloth covering her dismal and ragged dress.
It is significant that Sisa herself voiced what Elias said at the end of the novel Noli Me Tangere, a prayer not to forget the souls that fell in the night. The play goes beyond the call for revenge which is the likely option for the oppressed. In this play, Sisa urges Salvi to pray not only for her and her sons’ souls but also for his own. Paglalakbay ni Sisa won third prize in the Cultural Center of the Philippines literary contest in 1976.
THE WELL AS UNIFYING TROPE
The well can serve as a unifying trope in the Lapeña Bonifacio plays. It can represent the folklore treasure chest itself, the native imagination, ancestral rights or the action for justice sought by sufferers. Her play Sepang Loca (1957) reminded viewers of a well-known story in many Philippine towns. This is the archetypal story of a mother whose child has died, and she wanders through the town, calling out to her child. As in the plot of world-renowned classical tragedies, everyone is shocked to discover that the wrongdoer who drove her to madness is none other than the one who holds power, the much-respected gentleman. In this kind of narrative, it is usually not one individual who leads and is a party to the uncovering of the deed. In Sepang Loca, the action of menfolk who took turns descending into the depth of the well is significant and it is also equally important that town folks witness the salvaging of the baby’s decomposed body. In this kind of drama, the visibility of tragedy must go public because the collective must participate in singling out the source of the black sin.
Lapeña Bonifacio truly knows that theater and the effects of drama must be brought to varied places and spaces. She wrote a total of 20 books, 36 plays, 108 short stories, 40 essays, 25 poems and a novel entitled Binondo At a Time of War, launched in 2015 and written when she was 86. Teatrong Mulat has participated in about 23 international theater festivals and staged more than 1,800 shows.
Lapeña Bonifacio has received a total of 46 awards, including the NCCA Haraya Award, NCCA Gintong Bai Lifetime Achievement award, Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas, Parangal Sentenyal ng Sining at Kultura and the NCRP Achievement in the Humanities. International award-giving bodies appreciate her contributions. Among her outstanding recognitions are the ASEAN Award in 1990, Woman of Distinction Award in Theatre Arts of the YWCA, and Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA) Grant for Children’s Literature in 1991.
More than the recognitions and awards, the gift from her explorations in Asian theater and Filipino mind and culture is her true legacy, not only for Filipinos but for people of the world. Her works helped pave the way for the renewed admiration by the young for theater and literature.
She featured strong and intelligent characters in her children’s plays. The protagonists are not gullible and submissive ingénues. In every children’s play by Lapeña Bonifacio, she presents insights about excesses and inadequacies in values: over-generosity becomes weakness, too much intelligence is not intelligence, too much faith is stubbornness. The plays wish to prove that a balanced thought and action is the key to freedom from questions and doubts, a guide to decision-making and attaining serenity. All these are necessary then and even today in the education of the young.
She elevates theater through incisive interpretations/readings of historical factors from the distant past or the present. Sometimes her ideas become oracles. In this theater, the people and the community are the real protagonists.
The achievements of Lapeña Bonifacio go beyond theater. In her book, The “Seditious” Tagalog Playwrights (1972), she employed a historical viewpoint in her meticulous investigation of the milieu and the major patriotic dramatists of the early American period. Her works have a transnational spirit but highlight the native by importing the conventions and aesthetics of Southeast Asia and Japan. She debunked the idea that the colonial mind is so bound to foreign institutions and fellowships that it can no longer care about the welfare of the motherland.
Lapeña Bonifacio used the English language in her early works in the 1950s and 1960s, but later switched to Filipino, as she recognized that empathy with the pulse of the native mind stands in need of the native language. Artists like Lapeña Bonifacio recognized and used the invaluable insights drawn from the experience and imagination of the community.
Her plays opened new directions because they reinforced the idea that dramatists are never removed from their audience and community. If she has successfully drawn sustenance from the well of Asian theater, she showed how water from that well, like Filipino consciousness, could quench thirst. Then and even now, we are delighted to appreciate the creations inspired by a well that holds the fountainhead of wisdom.
Translated from Filipino by Romulo P. Baquiran, Jr.