Honoring defiance against insidious sociopolitical ailments

Photo by Jerome Edward Ignacio
Text by John Patrick Manio

This year, Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas (DUP) opens the 26th Theatre Season of UP Playwrights’ Theatre (UPPT) – dubbed Honoring Defiance – with “Fathers and Sons” (directed by Tony Mabesa) which is a stage adaptation of National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin’s short story entitled Three Generations. “Fathers and Sons” and its Filipino counterpart “Mga Ama, Mga Anak”, translated by National Artist Virgilio Almario and multi-awarded writer Jose F. Lacaba, is staged in honor of its author’s birth centennial.

Apart from the masterful direction of Tony Mabesa and the spectacular and engrossing performances of each of the cast, “Fathers and Sons” – being a brainchild of Nick Joaquin – delves deeper into the inner workings of the Filipino family and culture. Supported by intricate characterization and inter-character tension, it will make the audience think of their own dealings with their family as they see themselves in the shoes of the play’s characters.

Set in the 1970s, the play follows a day in the life of the Monzon family and focuses primarily on the relationship between the former “Caritela King” Zacarias Monzon and his son Celo Monzon, as tension arises when the former persisted to retain his concubine go-go dancer Bessie in their house. Patriarchy plays heavily into the Monzons’ family dynamic and is the central point of criticism in this play. Its most featured prop, although physically absent in the stage, is a long wooden table that symbolizes the looming power and legacy of the father figure in the respective household, much like an artist’s painting of himself in another Nick Joaquin play, A Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino.

In line with the season’s theme of ‘Honoring Defiance’, the defiance comes heavily from Celo as a victim of his father’s abusive and machistic nature. All throughout the play, we see glimpses of his past that build up his disgust towards his father, his thirst for vengeance only increasing. This psychological turmoil then turns into a hindrance for Celo in his rocky pursuit of being a better father to his own son, Chitong, who needs moral support in his vocation as a church novice.

Another unknowing victim in this family’s patriarchal setting is Celo’s sister, Nena, who dismisses the notion of getting a family of her own in order to serve and take care of her father full-time. She lives with his father and is there whenever he is in need, even tolerating his desires of living with his concubine up to the point where she considers Bessie a part of their family. This begs a critical lens into the ‘traditional’ Filipina daughter who is unhealthily tied to her family, thus neglecting freedom to her own life.

Even Bessie, although outside of the family unit, is victimized by the patriarchy. But ironically enough, it is through Zacarias that she finds her worth outside of her scarlet-collar job. This paints a fascinating insight: the patriarchy does not stem from the family and its father figure but is imbued within the culture and belief system of a society – an inherent ailment that affects every individual. With the death of Zacarias, Celo finally finds reconciliation with his father but it is only through the destruction of the wooden table that he and the rest of the characters achieve true inner peace. This bit proves that patriarchy, symbolized by the table, really is just a looming construct waiting to be abolished by the willing who have had enough of its tormenting clutches.

Another angle that could be seen in this play is the vicious cycle of oppressed-becomes-oppressor, as evident in the characters of Zacarias and Celo. Zacarias was once the son of an impoverished father and his obsession with wealth, especially that of his long wooden table, has been to compensate for the lack of food that they’ve experienced in the past. Now, he could accommodate three dozen people at his table at once. What he gained physically, however, he lost morally.

Celo’s struggle of becoming a proper father to his own son translates into his biggest fear of becoming similar to his father – an ordeal that is not so impossible. While being consumed with depriving his father the presence of his concubine, Celo lashes out at his son, doing the exact same thing his father once did to him as a child.

Given that the story was set in 1974 during the height of Martial Law, the concept of the ‘vicious cycle’ could be incorporated in this context to generate a critique of the Marcos administration’s harsh and oppressive nature and the promise of the next’s emancipation which in hindsight, we all know was short-lived. Even with the advent of the 1986 People Power Revolution, human rights violations had prevailed and disappearances had continued. Those who promised to alleviate the ailments of the masses had, in some degree, made it worse – whether through intention or failure to adhere to pressing issues. In this way, the oppressed becomes the oppressor.

The phenomenon of sons avoiding the path their fathers once chose could also be observed during the last election where Bongbong Marcos ran for Vice President in the precedent that he would not be as tyrannical as his father, even teasing the promise that he would right the patriarch’s wrongs. While to critique both issues may not be part of Nick Joaquin’s original intentions upon writing for they are anachronistic at the time, it is interesting nonetheless to delve upon these angles to connect the play to timely and relevant topics in order appreciate the play’s timelessness as art.

Overall, “Fathers and Sons” is not only an entertaining production but an effective and thought-provoking piece and critique on traditional and contemporary Filipino culture. Actors like Leo Rialp and Candy Pangilinan own their characters to the point where actor and character seem inseparable.  More than simply being a play, it served as a window where the audience could see a glimpse of real people enacting society’s bittersweet reality.

Shows will run up to September 24.

Author: TNP

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