DAVAO BREATHES NEW LIFE INTO PROGRESSIVE THEATRE

A novel feature of this year’s Kadayawan celebration in Davao City is the staging of cultural productions in the tradition of the 1980s’ theatre movement. Held at a small, downtown restaurant, "Teatro sa Calle" has attracted a familiar audience of former activists, stage performers, veteran thespians, teachers and NGO workers—all having a stake in today’s cultural and socio-political realities. Resurgent contributor Karl M. Gaspar, CSsR traces the perilous origins of this collective drama and hopes the rebirth lasts for long.

Once upon a time in the not so distant past, in what was then the tumultuous history of Davao during Marcos’s martial rule, theatre artists and cultural workers led active lives;  productions of all kinds were mounted in venues across the city.

They  combined all kinds of tasks and responsibilities. Many were students in the city’s colleges and universities, others were out-of-school youth living in the urban poor communities who were engaged in ways to resist the dictatorial regime. Not only were they trying their best to finish their studies; they joined mass movements, expressing their outrage at what were then perceived as the root causes of the people’s poverty and oppression, namely, the various “ISMs.”

It was the eruption of creativity, of finding ways to not be arrested at a time when dissent was considered a subversive act.  Leave it to the youth of the land to use their resourcefulness and imagination to outwit the powers-that-be in the game of winning hearts and minds.  Looking back now to those truly exciting – albeit dangerous – times, a social analyst doing studies in this field today  would be amazed at the extent of the sheer variety of artistic engagements encompassing all the different arts embraced by a theatre movement – visual arts, music and songs, dance and literature.  If by then the film technology which is available now to the millennials  would have been at their disposal, films, too would have been produced.

Theatre has been part and parcel of Davao City’s cultural landscape, initially nurtured by a generation whose dramatic interests were mainly defined by Western aesthetics. This generation, mainly located in schools, staged plays that were often in English, as these were Shakespearean plays or those imported from Broadway or the West End. Naturally, these theatrical productions were aimed at the city’s elite. And given this reality, their audiences were always small.  

Then a new wind blew across the national cultural landscape which eventually reached local shores. The late 1960s brought about a rise in nationalistic fervor and a deep commitment to radical change. This was, of course, a global phenomenon following the consciousness-raising movements in many Third World countries aiming to cut the dehumanizing ties to their colonial masters and pushing for a greater sense of self-determination and self-reliant nation-building. The youth were at the forefront of this militant shift across the world and with issues like the Vietnam War, a youth-quake would arise in the late 60s. 

In Metro Manila, later also unfolding in the country’s main urban centers, students were doing teach-ins outside of the classroom as they embraced bold options to deal with social issues. Some of their professors deepened their understanding of Marxist theory. Many were finding time to experience the lives of landless peasants, workers in agricultural plantations , factories and families in urban poor communities. Before long, they began to see where they could best contribute to help steering the people’s attention towards the country’s ills.  Before long, they were writing songs, poems and scripts, and mounting cultural events from concerts to poetry reading to street plays and even  major theatrical productions.  Creativity and resourcefulness were  gushing out like a fountain despite the many limitations and risks.

 This time, most of the productions avoided the colonial heritage of the use of English. Instead, they harnessed the power of their mother tongues and found new ways of expressing ideas, thoughts, and feelings which were not alienated from their indigenous roots. Away from the influence of the West, they now produced their own, inspired by like-minded artists in  Manila. From relying on an auditorium with a fixed proscenium, they expanded their performance space to wherever an audience would gather – marketplaces, the public plaza, chapels, school stages, open air auditoriums, basketball courts, even the cockpit!  They discovered the “aesthetics of poverty” and didn’t allow meager funds to get in the way of mounting productions. 

Fortunately, recognized artists with credentials and professional training also found their niche within this nascent blossoming of Pinoy nationalist culture. In song, dance, music, film and theatre there emerged established and amateur groups. In song, there were the Asin, Heber Bartolome, Jess Santiago and so many others; it caught up in Davao with the Bagong Lumad group of Joey Ayala, Bayang Barrios, Popong Landero and others. In theatre there was the Philippine Educational Theatre Association led by Cecile Guidote and Lino Brocka. At UP, we had plays staged by the likes of Behn Cervantes and Bonifacio Ilagan. And of course, there was the street theatre. All these creative outbursts contributed to the popularization of local languages and aesthetics. Before long, many productions became inspired by the cultural traditions of indigenous peoples.

From the late 1960s until the historic EDSA I in 1986, this cultural impetus became a vibrant movement that branched out to many directions. In Davao City, the Kaliwat Theatre Collective, headed by Nestor Horfilla, provided a fresh perspective to this movement as its members immersed themselves among the Lumad communities and utilizing indigenous aesthetics to their productions, from Oya Arakan to Sinalimba. In time, other groups were established, focusing in dance-theatre like those of Kathara and Kalumon.  Elsewhere in Mindanao, the MSU Sining Kambayoka and MSU-IIT’s IPAG joined the bandwagon.

Towards the end of the century, it was the dance-theatre that dominated the cultural scene. New opportunities of mounting these productions presented themselves in hotels, conferences and, of course, the Kadayawan. Independent film also began to be explored by budding directors. In time, the tradition of activist theatre went on hibernation.  For almost two decades in Davao City, there were hardly any productions that didn’t include dance, music and songs. There were excerpts from Broadway plays, but none of Shakespeare’s plays whether in English or translated in the vernacular. For all intents and purposes, theatre pieces relying mainly on the spoken dialogue had died.

But this year, a few artists came together to assess this sad reality.  They felt that while Manila and other cities in Mindanao (mainly Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and Ozamis through the efforts of Bart Savior, Steve Fernandez and Felimon Blanco) remained active in progressive theatre, the local scene was deprived of this tradition. Thus was born TEATRO SA CALLE, a collaborative effort of Kaliwat Theatre Performing Collective, the Teatro Humanidades (of the Ateneo de Davao University) and Kulturang Tabunon. Jonathan Traya’s Calle 5, a restobar in the heart of Davao City, became the chosen venue.

TEATRO SA CALLE’s opening salvo on August 5 was Kaliwat’s Mindasilang, a shortened version of  a 3-act play about the roots of the Mindanao problem. Even with hardly any use of dance and songs, a crowd filled Calle 5, which showed there is still an audience for this type of play.  Kulturang Tabunon presented Desdemona: Ang Babae’ng Bihag sa Nag-uumpugan’g Ala-ala on August 12, and it was a standing-room-only event. The two Saturdays affirmed the intuition of the organizers – there is still a following out there in the city hoping to connect, or reconnect, with the enduring themes of the past. On August 19, a third play – Teatro Humanidades Babai will unfold.

Some things are worth resurrecting. And sustaining.