(With the goal of getting more of our The Manila Times College students writing about local culture, here’s a review of Kanakan-Balintagos’s Mga Buhay Na Apoy, edited and trimmed down for publication. I take as much responsibility as an editor [and teacher]should for agreeing to publish any review, but all credit goes to the writer of this piece, Gian Baltazar Franco)
Mga Buhay na Apoy is a timely discussion of our country’s misfortunes in this time of decay of family relations, national pride, morality, ethics, and conscience. Director and playwright Kanakan-Balintagos (formerly Aureos Solito) calls it activist theater. The play was a work he had lost and found in 2014. It would win first prize in the Carlos Palanca Awards in 2015. It speaks of his love and pride for his lineage of Shaman-Kings from the indigenous Palawan of South Palawan.
Pacing a four-act play
The prodigal play stringed together four acts, one that tiptoed the golden mean of rushing and dragging, into a coherent memory of one Leda Santos (Irma Adlawan). The pacing of the dialogue though was faster than one would like, leaving the audience wondering how much of the drama was lost in the banter. You might also be left behind if you’re concerned about the causal chain of conflicts among the characters, all of which had opposing beliefs, values, and attitudes. Depending on whether or not you catch up, you might also conclude that this was a theater technique that sought to pique your curiosity.
The satisfying reward, however, is the prompt realization that it made perfect sense to call all the characters Mga Buhay na Apoy. Fire licks combustible material and spreads quickly after all. Or, as others have said, this could simply refer to the Palawan legend of how humans come from fire.
The storytelling also went smoothly in parts where an audience unfamiliar with the rituals would be treated to dynamic descriptions of primordial divinities, a gong ensemble, and Ate Lili’s Palawán incantations. It helped that lighting director Dennis Marasigan used selective visibility to emphasize emotions that happen alongside indigenous rituals.
Feminism and religion
The second act reveals Leda’s troubled past and Aran’s secret in the greenhouse, as stage designer Paulo Alcazaren’s set turns 90 degrees. The towering tree itself, a replica of the one in Balintagos’ backyard in Santolan, blooms with self-explanatory symbols from beginning to end. That tree deserves its own curtain call, one might joke.
But no one can upstage Irma Adlawan—not even that tree. Only Irma can be the face of Leda. You will believe that Adlawan is walking across the living room of her house, hands meeting frequently across her stomach, with that parched personality acquired from passionate Christian piety and adherence to social conventions.
Balintagos provides a rigid dichotomy between Leda and Lili as symbols of Christianity and Paganism. Leda found newfound faith in a European religion that promises eternal paradise as consolation for the oppressed, while Lili fears the erosion of Palawan traditions and rituals. Rather than weakness and neglect, we see strength in Leda who struggles to shake off bitter memories while turning a blind eye to everything associated with Palawan. She hides the truth to prevent its repercussions on her family relations, as well as to keep her sanity, while seeking solace from the God who understands her.
But her motherhood is her undoing. Leda’s son Aran (Russel Legaspi) is the curious Palawan child that she tries to suppress. Aran reminds of the simpler days of childhood, when folk stories were told among family, and imagination was boundless.
The language divide
A recurring flashpoint between family members is linguistic imperialism. Aran disapproved of his aunt Selmah (Malou Crisologo) enforcing the use of the King’s language with her daughter Topaz. The conflict between the two highlights the wall that separates the English-speaking intelligentsia from the Filipino masses, which also represents a divide in cultural taste that nurtures misunderstandings and conflicts of interest.
Modernism of course is critical to this discussion of language, where Leda herself vacillated between religion and science to dismiss the ideological underpinnings of her Palawan past. For example, she rebutted the effectiveness of gayuma in Manila for lack of scientific evidence, while at the same time claiming it to be the work of the devil. Topaz and her stepfather Ringgo (JV Ibasate) meanwhile represented modernism given their knowledge of the English names of animals endemic to Palawan.
The Lumad killings as context
Mga Buhay na Apoy points out that we forget to appreciate and take pride in our indigenous culture and that we mistake everything that is indigenous as resistance against the current of development.
International indigenous activist of Igorot descent Victoria Tauli-Corpuz has spoken of how the tendency is to see indigenous movements as dangerous because their notion of communal living is seen as contrary to dominant beliefs in private property, capitalism and development. This brings us to the recent spate of Lumad killings and displacements from Surigao del Sur to Davao del Norte, a product of militarization across indigenous people’s (IP) communities that own land being eyed by mining companies.
It is in light of this state of our IP communities that Mga Buhay na Apoy could have done more. Balintagos could have ended with Leda bringing the family to Palawan, instead of just telling stories about it inside Aran’s greenhouse. That is, if the goal is to get the current generation to take interest in indigenous culture, which demands that they participate in it, that they practice it in order to keep it alive.
I caught a whiff of this powerful potential in the ending of Mga Buhay na Apoy. In the end though what it does is let your imagination work on its own, which can rejuvenate—if not change—you. Whether or not this materializes into anything productive remains to be seen, especially since this play does not find the need to answer the question: what can we do now?