‘Spirit of the Glass’ keeps the fight for human rights alive

‘Spirit of the Glass’ keeps the fight for human rights alive
"Spirit of the Glass" was staged at the new Ignacio B. Gimenez KAL Theater. —PHOTOS BY LIANA GARCELLANO

“Spirt of the Glass,” a new play written by Bonifacio P. Ilagan and directed by Joel Lamangan, had a brief run at the IBG-KAL Theater at the University of the Philippines, Diliman on March 8-10, with two performances per day.

We caught the 2:30 p.m. show (the other was at 7 p.m.) on March 10, arriving at the theater more than an hour before showtime to buy walk-in tickets. By 2 p.m. the lobby was teeming with theater-goers. Ilagan chit-chatted with some friends before everyone, including activists Satur and Bobbie Ocampo, were all ushered inside.

An hour into the play, the thick silence becomes prickly when four ghosts take center stage. They were the victims of human rights violations in the Philippines—during the Spanish and US colonial eras, Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s dictatorship, and the regimes of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Rodrigo Duterte. They had entered the land of the living through a portal opened by two Red-tagged university professors, a former activist, and an artist-photographer playing the Spirit of the Glass to keep their minds off of the state’s manhunt.

The spirits narrate their sufferings through one of the professors whose third eye remains open.

“Spirit of the Glass” combines art and reality in championing human rights, which have become more difficult to uphold in the face of a strong effort at historical revisionism backed by seemingly unlimited resources. The fight for human rights continues to require a strong pushback, and the play provides just that.

Upended lives

Vivian (Elora Españo) and Balé (Carlos Dala) are Red-tagged by the state for their supposed subversive actions, and their lives are upended. They go into hiding in the province with security officer Badong (Edward Allen Solon) and Rory (Barbara Miguel) in Rory’s house. Rory inherited the house from her grandparents Fernando and Herminia who, in the 1950s, were Huks, or members of the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan. Rory insists that she’s an individualist, not an activist.

Spirit of the Glass stage set
The “house” of Lolo Fernando and Lola Herminia is where everything takes place.

That Vivian and Balé are Red-tagged for their rights advocacy turns logic on its head, giving credence to the absurdity of the situation: Rights advocates exercising their rights are hunted down for fighting for what’s right. The manhunt raises the question of why advocating for human rights is considered evil in a democratic country. Shouldn’t citizens in a functioning democracy be free to speak out without fear of persecution?

It is this egregious absence of logic that Ilagan weaves into the play as an envisioned hope, and endgame, through dialogues particularly between the four—Vivian, Balé, Badong, and Rory—and the barangay (village) captain (Edru Abraham) who dropped in at the house unexpectedly.

The captain’s visit is brief but potent enough to emphasize the state’s strong capability for terror. His attendance at a seminar of the NTF-Elcac (or the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict) on terrorism and activism accentuates his power even at “just” the village level. It has a chilling effect on the four, having—irony of all ironies—come face to face with the arm of the “law” in their sanctuary shortly after their arrival.

But llagan makes the impossible possible. Without resorting to threats of violence, the captain debates with the four on human rights and activism. Pushing the surreal turn of events, he promises, at the end of their discussion, that no harm will come to them and momentarily alleviates the bleakness of Vivian and Balé’s problem.

Fictional as Vivian and Balé are, their situation is firmly grounded on the ominous issuance by the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF) of Memorandum No. 2022-0663 on Aug. 9, 2022, banning five books. Lorraine Badoy, Rodrigo Duterte’s former communications undersecretary, had branded the works of Malou Jacob, Rommel B. Rodriguez, Dexter B. Cayanes, Don Pagusara, and Reuel M. Aguila as subversive, and Red-tagged the authors in the talk show “Laban Kasama ang Bayan” broadcast over Sonshine Media Network International, according to globalvoices.org.

In a subsequent report by Inquirer.net, the memorandum was rescinded a month later, when some KWF commissioners withdrew their signatures following a massive public outcry.

Disturbed spirits

Spirit of the Glass playwright and director
Bonifacio Ilagan and Joel Lamangan tackle the familiar subject of upholding human rights.

Using spirits as characters is not a whimsical creative take by Ilagan. Significantly, the four spirits plus Fernando (Nanding Josef) and Herminia (Edna May Landicho) underscore the dire situation that even the dead are turning in their graves or, as llagan writes in Tagalog in the program notes, “protesting against Red-tagging and all human rights violations.”

From the beyond, Natalya, Rory’s yaya and “big sister,” narrates with Vivian’s help her savage end in the hands of her abductors. The brutality of Natalya’s story sounds fantastical, but the lines of reality and fiction blur precisely because a cloud of terror hangs overhead.

Fernando and Herminia have long been gone but they’re attuned to the goings-on in the modern world, including an acceptance of their granddaughter’s sexual preference in a partner. Even in the afterlife they’re supportive, making their home a halfway house for dead and living activists. Their legacy of fighting against injustice, which ended with Natalya’s death, is revived in Rory, who, after learning what has happened to Natalya, embraces activism wholeheartedly.

llagan does not gloss over the savagery, and why should he? The truth in its brutal vividness must be told to resist the present-day denialism that’s deodorizing the workings of evil.

The playwright himself has faced the evil lurking in the shadows all his life. Writing in Tagalog in the program notes, he tells of the day of interrogation and torture that he endured in Baguio City in 1994, and his being told afterwards by the officer who arrested him that he better not show his face again. And of that phone call on Jan. 2, 2023, in Quezon City, in which he was told: “We know what you’re doing. I still have some respect for you, but once the order comes from the top, even if you beg, there’s nothing you can do.”

Regular folks

Ilagan deconstructs the stereotypical image of activists as angry and coldhearted. He depicts Vivian, Balé, Badong, and Rory as level-headed yet funny, with regular-people worries such as love, everyday decisions, etc. (If Fernando and Herminia were alive, they would have been the model for couples, with their sweetness and attentiveness towards each other.)

Vivian and Balé may be professors, but they’re as awkward and inept as teenagers when it comes to romance. Neither wants to be the first to admit feelings for the other although their actions betray their words. Vivian is more extroverted than the slightly uptight, naive Balé, and has an annoying habit of saying “You’re mean” to counter or end arguments.

Badong is the foil to Bale’s seriousness. His jovial, happy-go-lucky manner provides the levity to the heaviness of the play, such as when he’d tease Vivian and Balé about their “relationship,” and his hilarious way of summoning the spirits when they start playing Spirit of the Glass.

Rory is Badong’s female version but is more bohemian in lifestyle. Nonetheless, she and Badong are two peas in a pod with vivacity and penchant for drinking. Compared to Vivian, who’s more structured in her ways. Rory is a free spirit oozing with confidence.

Collectively, the four can be any group of college friends taking a break from their studies, except that they have loftier ideals than their contemporaries.

Note of hope

Ilagan ends “Spirit of the Glass” on a note of hope, indicating order, albeit ephemeral, in the society. Vivian and Balé can return to their old lives, and before leaving for Manila, Balé finally admits his feelings for Vivian. Rory gathers her paintings and declares she’ll hold an exhibit honoring the slain activists. It is suggested that Badong returns to his ad-agency job.

The play presents to revisionists and doubters the glaring truths of a broken democracy where, in Ilagan’s words, “tyranny has resurrected, proclaiming authority over the land [and] history is being turned upside down.”

It reminds Filipinos of the necessity of vigilance, of speaking out, of fighting for their rights even if the struggle becomes perilous, and of realizing that no one is safe until past and ongoing crimes against the people are redressed.

“Spirit of the Glass” strongly drives home the point that in a functioning democracy, dialogue is essential: Asking, commenting, critiquing, and rebutting are fundamental tools of communication, not acts of terrorism.

The play needs another, longer, run.

Read more: Case of filmmaker, friends shows need for public awareness of warrantless arrest

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