Theatre Review: Personal and Political mix in play
By Beatrice Paez
When the lives of revered political figures are stolen at the height of their prime, their ghosts inspire a long train of literary works.
Nina Lee Aquino searched no further than her family tree to find material for her sophomore effort as a playwright. Every Letter Counts, which runs at Factory Theatre is set in the days leading up to Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino’s assassination, told in the eyes of his six year old niece, re-imagined years passed.
It’s a personal meets political account of life lessons inherited from the four days they shared in his exile. Over a game scrabble, Aquino teaches Lee Aquino’s stubborn character, Bunny to make the best with life’s random draws.
What is a story in finding oneself gets buried in mounting historical facts that at best illuminates an ongoing struggle mediated by familial experiences.
The play is accessible insofar as it mimics the rhythm of the Philippine language and speaks to the hyphenated experience, being caught between two worlds and of an indifference to learning about one’s heritage before hitting university or college. Even with the storied family name, Bunny “didn’t know” she was Filipino.
Growing up in Texas, a distance away from the scrutiny of former president Ferdinand Marcos, Lee Aquino was an unacquainted with her uncle’s crusade against martial law. If she had any doubts as a young girl about what her uncle stood for, her play never lets its audience forget.
Her freedom-fighting uncle is mythologized as a man of the same stature as John F. Kennedy, just as headline grabbing and gripped with a family curse of a leading a short but promising life. Those memorializing moments are cringe worthy, with Aquino invoking his birthright as one of his underlying motivations for facing off with Marcos.
The play has its moments, where real-life anecdotes make their way into the script and the dynamics between brothers are staged. The story moves between past and present tense, from summoning rousing speeches sprung from the archives to unleashing festered emotions. Actors Jon de Leon and Earl Pastko, who play Aquino and Marcos respectively, reenacted the dueling polemics between the two with vigor and bite.
Bunny is a guarded, but inquisitive six-year-old, working through her dyslexia, unscrambling letters with her uncle over scrabble. Lee Aquino’s performance as a six-year-old was restrained for the most part, but devolved into a shameful fit, an onstage explosion of hurling chairs and expletives as she took on her older self.
Lee Aquino’s play is a mirror into her thoughts about her family’s legacy and serves its audience a slice of Philippine history. And in a classic case of art imitating life, the twin narrative of a revolution played itself out a Factory Theatre and the aftermath is still settling.
When Ken Gass, the theatre’s founder and artistic director was sacked, Lee Aquino and the play’s director, Nigel Shawn Williams were installed as interim artistic directors. In solidarity with Gass, other heavyweights left, leaving a vacuum of work to be staged.
The position will allow her to hire new playwrights and actors for the season. And if anyone is up for that challenge, it’s Lee Aquino, who has an impressive resume in building a stage for diversity in the theatre. She co-founded fu-Gen Asian-Canadian Theatre Company, which celebrated its 10th year in production, and heads Cahoots Theatre Company, which develops and produces works that explore Canada’s cultural diversity.
With a new post to add to her credentials, she is looking forward to expanding her mission to bring the voices of ethnic communities to the mainstream. “I love being able to empower the community. I consider myself a public servant to the theatre community,” she says. “That’s why I take power positions because I feel like it’s a vehicle for me to bring the community onto the next level with me.”
But she cautions that her mandate needs equal support from the community to stick. Support from the Filipino community in particular, she notes, has been lukewarm. The younger Filipino generation is becoming more engaged, but more seats need to be filled with diverse faces, she adds.
Lee Aquino makes a case for seeing her play, “Do you want to see yourself on stage? Then see this play. Do you want to learn about a chapter in Philippine history? Then go see this play.”
EVERY LETTER COUNTS:
The play runs until February 24. Tickets are $22-42.
Contact the box office for more details: 416-504-9971