• Tony Mabesa and the elusive National Artist Award

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    GEORGE VAIL KABRISTANTE

    GEORGE VAIL KABRISTANTE

    Multifaceted theater and film artist Dennis Marasigan mentioned several people who participated in the plays of Dulaang UP (University of the Philippines) in its tradition to invite professional actors to work with students—Barbara Perez, Vic Vargas, Mario O’Hara, Angie Ferro, Laurice Guillen, Cesar Montano, Lou Veloso, Ray Ventura, Pen Medina, Dindo Fernando, Fernando Josef, Romnick Sarmenta, Gloria Diaz and Juan Rodrigo.

    Other personalities started their careers as students and/or playwrights with said theater company – co-founders of the leading Writers Bloc and its theater arm Virgin Labfest, the late Rene Villanueva, Rody Vera, Liza Magtoto and Nick Pichay; Chito Roño, Harelene Bautista, Andoy Ranay, Auraeus Solito, Floy Quintos, Eugene Domingo, Ayen Munji-Laurel, Tuxqs Rutaquio, Chris Millado, Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, Malu De Guzman, Irma Adlawan and Dennis himself. Not to forget the two National Artists for Film who came from the same mold—Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka who adapted Ruel Aguila’s play In Dis Korner into film with Phillip Salvador in the lead.

    All these because of the fact that Dulaang UP founded in 1976 by Antonio “Tony” Mabesa, PhD. is now into its 41st theater season. Tony himself is showcasing a trilogy of plays by Leoncio Deriada about old hometown Molo in Iloilo along with Alexander Cortez’s Comedy Of Errors by the Bard; Dexter Santos’s Angry Christ, a new play on the life of Filipino painter Alfonso Ossorio written by Floy Quintos, and one in progress by Jose Estrella.

    Dulaang UP founder and artistic director emeritus Tony Mabesa

    Dulaang UP founder and artistic director emeritus Tony Mabesa

    The season at hand was what, among others, Tony Mabesa has shared with me recently while I was seated next to him at the UP Film Center watching Arlyn Dela Cruz’ opus, the Joma Sison biopic Tibak. Made me think Tony was one of First Quarter Storm’s “who’s who” whose name I suspected would be casually mentioned in a nationalist event like this to be recognized for having fought the Marcos dictatorship.

    Tony, now a septuagenarian (78), however, quickly checked on my facts: in the early ’70s after some years of teaching at UP Los Baños as BS Agriculture graduate, he went to the States to pursue his academic studies in theater and taught there as well for sometime. Upon his return in 1975 he mulled over the idea of creating a campus-based theater season at UP with then Department of Speech and Drama chair Dr. Leticia Tison.

    Thus was born Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas now popularly known as Dulaang UP, launched in 1976 with the production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing staged at the Abelardo Theater followed by Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio’s zarzuela Ang Bundok at the newly reconstructed AS Theater named after the acknowledged dean of Philippine Theater Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero who would later be bestowed National Artist for Theater posthumously.

    In a manner of speaking, Tony Mabesa who has been conferred Artistic Director emeritus status by UP, took after the legacy of his mentor Guerrero in staging the world’s classics vis-a-vis original plays as well even in his semi-retirement days, relishing as he does now living off his pension, sitting pretty and mighty in the faculty house at UP campus as long as he lives without threat of ejection, a fate which would have cost Guerrero’s privilege to stay longer in a faculty house more than necessary had not Tony and the UP community successfully rallied against it.

    In perpetuating said theater legacy for over four decades now, Tony unselfishly had allowed other stage directors to stand on his shoulders the likes of enfant terribles of Philippine theater—the late Behn Cervantes and Jonas Sebastian, Anton Juan to the new crop of post-modernists like Alexander Cortez, Jose Estrella and Dexter Santos.

    Looking back, Tony said he owed a great deal from the wealth of experience handed down by his mentor Guerrero who is now an urban legend among the country’s culturati famously known for founding UP Dramatic Club and in pioneering the creation of the UP Mobile Theater, first theater-on-wheels which on record had given at least two-thousand performances from Aparri to Jolo since its inception in 1962.

    Tony has snared all awards local and foreign in the direction of mounting landmark productions to reaffirm among others the notion of theatrical productions as a form of development communication and public service to humanity, except the illusive National Artist for Theater award.

    When I egged him on to comment why his nomination for said award had been bypassed several times by the holy cows at the CCP and NCCA, Tony turned away in disquiet and looked like he would rather go to the next question or topic.

    Well, my two-cents worth of opinion says he is perhaps another victim of crab mentality. Anyone who would want a posthumous award?

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