When you have experienced the horrors of extra-judicial killings (EJKs) up close, do you just weep and rail against the injustice of it? Or will you use your voice to confront the world and ask it why it is turning a blind eye?
The young people of Teatro Balagtas did and they are using their voice to sing heartwrenching songs. Their music is punctuated with tears and their performance by sad memories.
I consider myself so fortunate to have experienced two of their performances, one at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Performatura Festival and another in Pandacan’s Sto. Nino Parish Church. Each time was memorable and different.
Founded in 2008, Teatro Balagtas is a community youth theater group based in Pandacan that relies on private funds to keep going. It is part of the non-profit cultural group, Samahan ng Sining at Kultura ng Pilipinas. Composed of mostly youths from depressed communities, it stages plays about issues that are relevant to today’s society, from environmental degradation to poverty and violence. Recently, it staged a musical play on EJKs and the reception was both positive and horrifying.
The musical is called Bitan, which means lamentation in Korean. It follows the story of a coffin maker and his daughter as they face an uncertain future in a country beset by a spate of EJKs. Although the violence has given the dad’s trade a boost, it disturbs him and makes him question whether the killings are justified or not. Also featuring a star-crossed romance between the daughter and a Korean she rescued from a beating, the musical is an emotional reflection of what is happening in the trenches. A shrewish girlfriend, a former drug addict trying to turn a new leaf, and a cop in love with the daughter are other notable characters.
Scripted and directed by Jessie Villabriles, Bitan is a brave and powerful story. In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Jessie says that what the play wants us to realize is that “our worst enemy is not the police or the vigilantes. It’s not even President Duterte. Instead, it’s apathy and cynicism. That state of affairs where people no longer care.”
Indeed, there seem no clear-cut bad guys and good guys in Bitan. Everyone is caught up in a cycle of violence. But it does celebrate conscience and the power of a community to make a difference.
The incredible music of Jade Cuenca gives the play added emotional depth. Teatro Balagtas writes and composes its own songs and Jade is the genius behind much of the musical’s scoring. If the story does not move you to tears, the music will–as it did me. Meanwhile, the performances of the actors were haunting and heartfelt.
How could it not be, as many of them have personal experiences of their musical’s subject matter? Many of the lines and scenes were derived from the cast’s real-life experiences. One of them is Ronalyn Mangayon, 14. Her grandfather was shot dead inside her house in the middle of the night; the killer had poked his gun through an opening on the wall and pulled the trigger. She awoke to her mother screaming. In her account, Ronalyn says witnesses heard the gunman say, ‘Sorry, kagawad, napag-utusan lang (just following orders).’” Her grandfather, a community leader, had apparently been accused of protecting drug addicts.
Following the first media report on the musical, the members of Teatro Balagtas started to receive threats.
These are all public comments. To get the full details, contact Teatro Balagtas.
They were also accused of being paid to cause dissent. But this was the least of their concerns. Threats of rape and murder are horrifying by themselves but more so when targeting young people and minors. Jessie clarifies that the members of Teatro Balagtas do not receive a fee; donations are barely enough to cover their production expenses.
The show must go on.
Concerned for their safety, the group considered giving up the musical. But they decided that the show must go on. Various barangays, nonprofit organizations, human rights groups, and academic institutions have since been inviting them to perform at their events.
One of the songs goes like this, “Huwag mong sabihin, wala kang napapansin. Huwag mong sabihin, wala kang gagawin. (Don’t say you notice nothing. Don’t say you will do nothing.)” This cuts deep. The drug war has divided families and friends, including my own, each convinced for and against. But here are our young people wearing their hearts on their sleeves, begging us to open our eyes and ears. Couldn’t we at least listen?
You can contact Teatro Balagtas through their Facebook Page.
Photo credit: Icia de Guzman
Would you like to see a performance of Bitan? Yes? No? Share your thoughts with us and keep things cool, guys!