‘Anak Datu’ preserves cultural memory through contradiction

‘Anak Datu’ preserves cultural memory through contradiction
Tanghalang Pilipino guest actor-choreographer Hash Magarang and TP Actors Company senior member Lhorvie Nuevo in Rody Vera's "Anak Datu." —PHOTO BY MAX CELADA

You really wouldn’t be able to tell based solely on its colorful, toy-themed promotional materials, but Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Anak Datu” is a work of proud defiance that speaks to today’s concerns of historical denialism in a direct, patient, and intelligent way. 

The play, written by Rody Vera, tells several tales about Muslim Mindanao all at once—including that of the original short story by National Artist Abdulmari Imao; anecdotes about real-life tragedies and historical figures; and the childhood of Imao’s son Toym, the set designer for this and many other productions. 

If these diverse perspectives add up to more contradictions than similarities, it’s by design; this is a work about how the severe persecution of a people can lead to a crisis in identity in the new generations—as well as a newfound drive to pursue justice.

Tanghalang Pilipino artistic director Fernando Josef plays Jibin Arula, sole survivor of the Jabidah Massacre. —PHOTO BY MAX CELADA

“Anak Datu,” then, functions primarily as a history lesson covering a region of the Philippines whose stories remain vastly underreported farther up north. But while the show employs its fair share of expository dialogue and newsreel footage, it primarily speaks through movement and ritual. Impressively lengthy chunks of the play are made up of prayer, song, dance, and simulated martial arts fights choreographed by Hassanain Magarang and Lhorvie Nuevo. Even without any explicit “progression” in narrative, these scenes become the play’s centerpieces—emphasizing how rituals preserve both storytelling and cultural memory, especially the stories and details that remind us that Mindanao’s identity should never be reduced to just violence and suffering.

Sense of reverence

“Anak Datu” director Chris Millado. —PHOTO BY PAW CASTILLO

There’s a serious sense of reverence to the direction by Chris Millado (together with assistant directors Marco Viana and Antonette Go), especially when the production has to depict tragedy. Screams or gunfire never once overpower the voices of those actually involved in these massacres. Representations of Ferdinand Marcos’ regime and of the military responsible for the killings never truly figure in the foreground, although their role is underlined repeatedly, never to be ignored. 

What “Anak Datu” wants us to focus on instead is the beauty of a culture and a religion threatened with erasure, and how the lingering trauma from these threats continues to leave young people struggling to put the pieces of their heritage together.

However, while the play’s two frame stories—wherein Carlos Dala plays both a young Toym Imao and a young Datu Karim—serve as essential connective tissue for the entire thing, they wind up being its least striking components. They aren’t wanting for interesting material; in fact, the tension in Toym’s home between Islam and Christianity, between taking action and keeping one’s head down, makes for naturally potent drama. 

But these sections (particularly the use of Japanese anime series “Voltes V” as a symbol of dissent) come off as unresolved, perhaps to leave their true resolution in the hands of the youth and of audiences today, since the issues presented are far from settled.

Unrealized potential

Set designer Toym Imao is the son of National Artist for Sculpture Abdulmari Imao Sr. —PHOTO BY PAW CASTILLO

Similarly, while the play’s use of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ new Black Box Theater leads to many powerful images (the most memorable of which involve sparse lighting from Katsch Catoy and simple designs from Imao and costume designer Carlo Villafuerte Pagunaling), one gets the feeling that this space isn’t quite used to its full potential just yet. Depending on where you’re seated on the bleachers, both sound and action might be partially obscured for you, since the stage is set up along a single flat line with rarely a raised surface.

But this doesn’t significantly detract from the production’s strengths, or the rousing work put in by its ensemble. The isolated missteps only end up emphasizing by contrast how well “Anak Datu” works as a group show, with characters from past and present occasionally colliding on stage. As precolonial pirates from Sulu share the spotlight with Abdulmari Imao’s internationally renowned artwork, and with fiery, controversial figures like the Moro National Liberation Front’s Nur Misuari (Arjhay Babon), the play’s thesis only comes into sharper focus. 

By the time “Anak Datu” arrives at its final, massive tableau, it becomes so easy to accept that all these seemingly contradictory facets to Muslim and Mindanaoan identity should be allowed to coexist without the prejudice of bigots hounding them at every turn. Nobody has the right to tell a group of persecuted people that their pain is deserved, or that their suffering did not happen.

“Anak Datu” runs until Oct. 9 at the Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez Black Box Theater. —Ed.

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