Tokhang and talkbacks

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By Maria Jovita Zarate

Theater Review
Tao Po!
Written by Maynard Manansala
Directed by Ed Lacson
Presented by Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity (LODI)
April 16
PETA Theater Center

TWO EVENTS transpired on April 16 at the PETA Theater Center in Quezon City. The first was the performance of Mae Paner (a.k.a. Juana Change) of a four-part monodrama written by Maynard Manansala and directed by Ed Lacson. The second was the talkback — a forum that followed after the curtain call where the play’s lone actor, the playwright, informants, and sources of inspiration went up the stage to answer queries from the audience.

FOUR VIGNETTES, ONE ACTOR
The phrase “tao po,” as anthropologist Michael L. Tan clarified during the talkback, was an expression that arose during the Spanish times, when a visitor knocked on someone’s door and remarked “tao po” to affirm that he or she is a tao (person), not the aswang or maligno (monsters in Philippine folklore) who occassionally roams the pueblo. “Tao po” is both an assurance that a conversation can be pursued, or a mutually beneficial transaction can happen once a person has been allowed entrance into the dwelling.

In Mr. Manansala’s play on the extrajudicial killings, generally called tokhang, the popular greeting at the doorstep is subverted to create a host of meanings, both good and evil, betrayal and redemption. The title could extend to mean “tao po kami, hindi baboy na kinakatay na lamang…” (we are people, not pigs that are just slaughtered) or “tao po” could be the treacherous words of masked men who knock then stomp on a shanty door to send a volley of gunfire. “Tao po, tao po kami” (We are people) is also that anguished plea from the poor to reiterate their humanity.

Activist and actress Mae Paner takes on four characters, shifting gender, class, and social positions in every role. The first vignette tackled a photojournalist talking to a group of students about the craft of taking pictures in a time of tokhang, where the camera can be an instrument of truth and an accessory to untruth. In the next vignette, Ms. Paner is Nanay Rosing, a zumba instructor stalked by the ghosts of husband and son who were dragged out of their home by the police and shot repeatedly.

In the third vignette, the actress takes on the role of a man, a Davao City policeman who moonlights as a hired killer of drug users and pushers. The last monologue was about a young girl who roams around a public cemetery’s tokhang wall, that unusually tall pile of freshly cemented niches where casualities of Duterte’s drug war are shoved and then quickly covered with a slab of concrete.

The best of the four monologues is arguably the photojournalist’s — taut and lean, with a narrative arc that moved up and down very subtly as he argued his case against the drug war and the tabloid industry with restraint and quiet dignity. Nanay Rosing’s story contrasted the ludic pleasures of dancing to workout music and the incarcerating grip of the memory of husband and son as they were pulled by the ankles and shot. In Duterte’s drug war, no one is ever whole again, trauma leaves wounds that never mend, and yet each of these four characters are all in the process of transforming. The killer’s conscience is not unscathed: he knows the gun is trained on small time users, runners, and pushers, but as a member of the police force he is also summoned to protect the big fish. The orphan’s hopes are like the flickering lights of the candles she offers at those makeshift tombs.

THEATER TALKBACK
Not everyone stays for the talkback sessions. Some find themselves vexed at the patronizing manner in which talkbacks are moderated. Talkbacks can be redundant or can oversimplify the viewing experience.

This talkback though had different tack, largely because of the underhanded style of actor and cultural activist, Joel Saracho, who was tasked to moderate.

From the audience the participants ranged from a law student from the De La Salle University who implored “Please, please, tell us how we can help” to a PUP student who spoke from the theater’s balcony and with a dispassionate inflection: “Nakaka-relate ako kasi tatlong kamag-anak ko na ang natokhang” (I can relate because three of my relatives were killed extrajudiciously) and you knew his stolid disposition was a way of hiding his rage. Screenwriter Bibeth Orteza reiterated the play’s potential to speak to many publics, and goaded the creative team to translate the play into Ilonggo, Waray, Ilokano, and all the major languages of the country. Sunita Mukhi of the College of St. Benilde’s was visibly moved and spoke with force and conviction “Look, everyone, this is the redemptive capacity of the arts.”

But the most powerful voices were the sources and inspiration of the stories featured in this monodrama. Ms. Paner introduced them as Nanay Rosing and the young girl as Lovely. You would think some questions can be very naïve but the responses generate a world of meanings.

A member of the audience took to the microphone and asked “How do feel, Nanay, when you see your story performed?” Nanay Rosing’s quivering voice belied the strength she has forged deep inside and says “Masaya ako nandito kayong lahat, masaya ako hindi pala ako nag-iisa, masaya ako na nakilala ko sila Mae…” (I am happy that you are all here, I am happy to know that I am not alone, I am happy to have met Mae and company) And then Ms. Paner turned to Lovely, the inspiration for the vignette built around the tokhang cemetery wall. She tells the audience that the young girl tries her best to attend most performances of Tao Po! even if she has to borrow money for transportation because it helps her build a sense of connection with people and organizations who care about the plight of children orphaned by the drug war.

Seated at the far end, slightly slouched and head bowed down, photojournalist Raffy Lerma carried with him a kind of diffidence so when someone from the audience stood up and asked “Can we hear from Raffy Lerma?” one would think he would not oblige, and please, could we leave him to his silence because, fair enough, his pictures have spoken.

But no, because Mr. Lerma had a lot to say and, yes, the first vignette is his story, and his angers and frustration he did not hide when he talked about the system that underpins photojournalism in the Philippines. Mr. Lerma admitted to being numbed by the sight of dead bodies, as much as five in a night crawl, but he had to call his own attention so he would not turn insensitive to the idea that he makes his living from the misery of others. For Mr. Lerma, the answers went beyond the photograph and the camera, as he revealed: “Humanap ako ng koneksyon. Nandoon sa pamilya ng mga namatayan, binisita ko sila, sa lamay, pagkatapos ng lamay. Pag pumupunta nga ako sa kanila at nakikilala nila ako, at binabati na ‘Kuya Raffy,’ natutuwa ako…” (I search for a connection. With the family of the dead, I visited them at the wake, after the wake. When I came to them and they learned who I was, their greeting me “elder brother Raffy, I am glad…”)

Both events — the performance and the talkback — carried equal weight in this theater of trauma and testimony. Each buoyed the other in the ferocious currents of Duterte’s drug war. This is a rare moment in the theater scene — when the talkback is more than an appendage to the performance. In the heat of the discussion, the talkbalk became muscle and sinew to the bone of the performance. It transformed the individual experience of viewing to a community conversation for constructing and sharing meaning and making these stories seared into our memory. After all, theater has always been about community.

As the talkback wound down, it felt like the theater had transformed the audience to become its own society.

Tao Po! continues to go on a national tour. On May 8, 4 p.m., it will be staged in La Salle Lipa Centrum, Lipa City, Batangas. On May 10, it will have two performances, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., at the University of the Cordilleras in Baguio City. Parties who are interested to sponsor the play may contact Mae Paner through maepaner@gmail.com.

The author writes about the performing arts scene in the country today. She is a member of the jury of Gawad Buhay, the country’s first industry awards body for the performing arts and teaches at the University of the Philippines Open University.

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