By Jo Comuyog
The year 1977 was no year for criticizing the government what with the nation blanketed by a quiet and fear-stricken political climate. Everyone knew that speaking out against the dictator could land you in the torturous hands of the military and your name on the long list of the disappeared.
Only five years earlier did then president Ferdinand Marcos declare martial law to subdue any form of dissent. Yet it was not enough reason to stop Bonifacio Ilagan from becoming an underground UP student leader against the Marcos regime.
Like many, he fell victim to the military’s many human rights violations during one of the darkest ages in our history. In response, he turned to the arts as one means of communicating many pressing truth.
Despite its probable consequences, Ilagan went on to write an iconic political production opening Filipinos’ eyes to the national situation titled “Pagsambang Bayan”.
Decades after the bloody years of martial law, many of the messages it propagates still proves relevant to the nation’s issues.
Under the direction of Joel Lamangan, the revival of “Pagsambang Bayan” undertakes a revitalizing integration of digital images, contemporary music, and today’s most burning political issues. Having started this August, the Tag-Ani Performing Arts Society, in cooperation with the Jovenes Foundation and Erehwon Center of the Arts, was able to once more stage this increasingly relevant production in its 40th anniversary.
The cast was comprised of 18 parishioners – professionals, workers, farmers, students, indigenous folk, and the urban poor – along with a chorus, and priest, played alternately by rock icon Eric “Cabring” Cabrera and renowned tenor Conrado Calnea “Dondi” Ong III.
Along with its candid allusions to the Marcos regime, “Pagsambang Bayan The Musical” retained its liturgical influence in modeling the show after a Eucharistic celebration. The production took various biblical imagery and references to new heights of social and political relevance.
However, instead of portraying a priest-dominated ritual, the Mass became the platform for the many sectors in the congregation to voice their grievances to the community. Accompanied by original compositions by Joel Balsamo and Lucien Letaba, the narrative went back and forth between past and present problems faced by the people. Special emphasis was put on the juxtaposition of Marcos’ and President Rodrigo Duterte’s Martial Law as well as the destructive political environment their administrations had in common.
The production also tackled the injustice of recognizing former president Ferdinand Marcos as a hero despite having permitted and committed countless atrocities during his administration. “Kahit soldier pa yan,” members of the congregation asserted, “kailangan pa ring ‘good role model’ ang bayani!” (“Even though he was a soldier, a hero must still be a good role model.”)
Issues on the increasing number of political prisoners, the continued land-grabbing and contractualization were also altercated by members of the congregation from the specific sectors concerned.
Overall, the emotionally charged back-and-forth between the people and their religious leader was able to pose questions and initiate discourse about why we are plagued with our nation’s problems (“Ano ang ugat ng problema ng bayan?”), our accountability as citizens (“Walang sinuman ang nabubuhay para sa sarili lamang!”), and the importance of engaging in the fight for a just and free Philippines (“Kung hindi tayo, sino? Kung hindi ngayon, kailan?).
It was clear that, more than anything, “Pagsambang Bayan” was a call to solidarity. Watching this musical provided a good briefer on the nation’s many societal ills while the play’s interaction with the audience showed how it aims to bring people beyond simply knowing.
When the cast members would invite the audience to sing along and partake in its titular public worship, the viewers were effectively urged to empathize with the plights of those from the different sectors in society.
Amidst a sea of revisionism, productions like “Pagsambang Bayan” pull us back and serve as a reminder of our role as makers and rememberers of history.
The production was a holistic portrait of poignant yet empowering political theatre. “Pagsambang Bayan The Musical” not only prompts us to reflect on our history and recognize the urgency of the issues it raised, but also reignites in its audience a perhaps long-gone sense of nationalism and appreciation for the arts in times of national crises.
“Pagsambang Bayan The Musical” is set to show on the following tour dates: September 8-9 in La Consolacion College Auditorium, Mendiola, Manila; September 14 in Holy Angel University Theater, Pampanga; September 21 in the Cultural Center of the Philippines Little Theater, Pasay City; and September 29-30 in Sta. Cecilia’s Hall, St. Scholastica’s College, Manila. For inquiries, the Tag-Ani Performing Arts Society can be contacted via [email protected], 09228252604, 09228995754, or 09088124781.