Where does history end and myth begin? How does memory, individual and collective, influence and possibly correct the narration of a people’s history?
These questions are doubly important today, in an era when social media and other digital platforms tend to lump the critical verification of facts with unthinking chismis (gossip).
Tanghalang Pilipino’s latest production, ”Anak Datu,” addresses these issues head-on in a multilayered, multidimensional approach to interlocking tales that involve family, community, and a speck of forgotten history in Mindanao.
The viewer should leave linear thinking at the door. The three main stories leap from one era to another, from precolonial Philippines to 1970s martial law. They also span different universes, from real life and fiction to historical remembrances.
At the heart of it all are the various protagonists’ quest for identity, struggle with alienation and disenfranchisement, and a valiant fight to uncover truths that have been distorted, replaced, or removed from the history books.
“Anak Datu” started with a short story published in 1971 and initially adapted as a children’s play with “a very simple, predictable folk story,” says director Chris Millado.
But what the current production has now is “a jump”—or several of them—“from myth to memory to history.”
This fascinating labyrinth is built on the three heroes of the play and their respective journeys.
First is the fiction part, the 1971 short story written by National Artist Abdulmari Imao. A teenager who grows up in the pre-Hispanic Sulu Archipelago discovers that his father, the village chieftain, is not his actual sire. The man he long respected and believed was his old man was actually a pirate who raided his original village years ago—and took captive his mother who was pregnant with him. This discovery triggers the boy’s journey to find his real father, his roots, and his identity.
The second part is actual family history. Again the perspective is that of the son, this time of Imao’s own, Toym Leon. Toym is the son of Tausugs who is struggling to belong and yet maintain his own identity in Luzon. While on that journey of self-discovery, he discovers how his family is part of a bigger milieu: the political turmoil in Mindanao.
The third part focuses on that piece in national history as seen through the eyes of Jibin Arula. He is the lone survivor of the Jabidah massacre, in which about 200 Tausug and Sema men were brutally killed in Corregidor in 1968.
Playwright Rody Vera explains how the three journeys mirror and interconnect with each other: “One episode of the story will parallel the next story. For example, when the young teenager’s father survived, the parallel is that Jibin Arula survived. The three stories are connected not just in terms of themes but also in terms of events. Myth acquires layers because it was anchored on what had happened.”
Consider also “Toym’s memory as an artist, how he realized his commitment to the struggle,” Vera says. “You see his conflict as a kid with a political stand with regards to his land in Mindanao.”
At the same time, finding the common ground in these three approaches—this time, from myth to history to memory—can also uncover events that have been forgotten.
Vera cites as an example the massacres that the play presents: “We don’t know that these things happened. All these came out with the documentaries in 1987. That was how we saw how many died. You can still see the bullet holes in the mosques and the skeletons that emerged. Now, in the time of disinformation, this is being denied. It came out through the Commission on Human Rights and the stories of the survivors and the desaparecidos.”
Millado weighs in on how verifying memory and checking the facts can actually change the course of generally accepted history: “We bought into the myth that what was happening in Mindanao was a Christian-Muslim conflict, but it was actually precipitated by the Jabidah and other massacres.”
Millado hopes that the enormity of the canvas that “Anak Datu” is painting will open the audience’s eyes to “the messiness of how we create our national narrative.”
“It is not a seamless weaving of myth, history and memory,” he says. “There are always fissures and contradictions. It shows the myth as pristine as it is, memory as malleable as it is, and history as messy as it is.”
“Anak Datu” runs until Oct. 9 at the Tanghalang Ignacio B. Gimenez. Check Tanghalang Pilipino for details. —Ed.