Powerful play tackles martial law and EJK

Community News & Features Oct 27, 2017 at 3:46 pm


‘Pagsambang Bayan,’ The Musical

By Mila Astorga-Garcia

TORONTO – One of the gems of theatre art which powerfully tackles the issues of extra judicial killings both during the Marcos dictatorship and under President Duterte’s administration is Pagsambang Bayan, the Musical.

Written by Bonifacio Ilagan and directed by Joel Lamangan, both award winning luminaries in the field of theatre and film, the musical was a major attraction at the Pista Rizalina Festival of Arts and Ideas held at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines in Manila, September and October 2017.

The festival’s name is taken from student activist Rizalina Ilagan, the younger sister of the playwright Ilagan. Rizalina and University of the Philippines Los Baños professors and students, collectively known as the Southern Tagalog 10, were abducted in July 1977 by unidentified men believed to be members of the military, The 10 remain ‘desaparecidos’ until now.

His sister’s abduction happened barely a year after Ilagan was released from almost two and a half years of political detention where he was brutally tortured. Although distraught with his sister’s forced disappearance, Ilagan sought solace and strength in writing a play depicting the horrors of martial law and the people’s continuing resistance against it. His writings were inspired by the liturgical learnings relevant to the country’s oppressive situation then, and the need to fight for truth, justice and human rights – teachings from a Bible given him by his sister when he was in detention “I was not religious,” Ilagan said. “But I read and re-read the Bible from cover to cover, and it was even the version with colourful pictures, but I did not understand anything,” he said, a revelation greeted with laughter from his attentive audience.

BONI and the cast of Pagsambang Bayan, The Musical

BONI and the cast of Pagsambang Bayan, The Musical (Photo: M. Astorga-Garcia)

“Still I continued re-reading because in detention you read anything you can get hold of. Then I saw passages which resonated with the reality then, so I took note of them,” he confided to his audience after the play’s performance.
What resulted was the powerful play Pagsambang Bayan (People’s Worship), which he wrote not long after his release and his sister’s subsequent abduction. In September 1977, it was performed by the UP Repertory at the University of the Philippines, directed by the late Behn Cervantes.

The new version, according the the CCP official brochure, Pagsambang Bayan, The Musical, “is a remake of the landmark anti-martial law play that is cited in the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Arts as a major work in Philippine Theatre.” Ilagan rewrote the play and created the libretto, to reflect the present brazen Philippine repressive situation resulting in thousands of extra judicial killings by the police under Duterte’s war on drugs, noting the current president’s admiration of the how dictator Marcos ruled the country.

As writer Ilagan explains in the play’s brochure, “Nasa matinding krisis pa rin ang ating lipunan – krisis na kaparis noong panahon ni Marcos. Naririto and kabuluhan ng Pagsambang Bayan The Musical. Pagsasanib ito ng noon at ngayon. (Our society is still in intense crisis – a crisis similar to the time of Marcos. This is the essence of Pagsambang Bayan, The Musical. Depicting together the then and now.)

Through serendipity and the kindness of two good friends, Vic and Ruth David, this writer was able to watch the musical during its last evening run at CCP last September 22. With the magnificent performance of its powerhouse cast of 19 led by Pinoy rock music icon Eric ‘Cabring’ Cabrera and internationally acclaimed tenor Conrado ‘Dondi’ Ong, the play, as far as this member of the audience was concerned, artistically and powerfully delivered its message.

JOED Balsamo, Musical director and some of the cast

JOED Balsamo, Musical director and some of the cast

And what was the message? It is a “call for the next generation to never forget the past. It is a call to examine current issues and make a stand, just like what Rizalina and other unsung heroes did,” as articulated in the introductory remarks of Chris Millado, artistic director of the festival, and CCP president Arsenio Lizaso, in describing the common theme and objective of the event comprising of theatre, film and art exhibits.

“The festival hopes to unite the people despite the diverse religious and political inclinations, and different social backgrounds. Through the performances, talks and other artistic endeavors, we aim to develop the cultural value of pagmamalasakit (concern) — that amid the collective trauma brought about by arbitrary arrest, disappearance and the negation of rights, the Filipino people can still empathize with their fellow countrymen,” Millado and Lizaso’s message add.

As for Ilagan, Rizalina’s forced disappearance is both a driving personal and political reason why he continues with such fervor to bring his art with this message to the people, he told his audience. For this reason, his main focus now is to call for the release of all political detainees still languishing in jail. And of course, to stop the killings and to end the tyranny inspired by martial law,

At the end of the play, Ilagan happily introduced to his audience a young woman, a student who was jailed for six years on trumped-up charges, and just recently released. For Ilagan, each detainee released, each life saved simply gives him enough reason to continue what he is doing, whether through his art or his other forms of activism. As he had emphasized after the play, Rizalina inspires him to go on.

Ilagan has won prestigious awards for his works. He was one of 100 Filipino artist recipients of the CCP Centennial Honors for the Arts (1999). Other awards include: THe Lifetime Achievement Award, Writers Union of the Philippines (2010); five time recipient of the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature; Philippine Movie Press Club Star Awards; Golden Screen Awards,Filipino Academy of Movie Arts And Sciences.

Aside from being a multi-awarded artist and president of Tag-ani Performing Arts Society, Ilagan is Lead Convenor of Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses to Malacanang (CARMMA), and Chairperson of the First Quarter Storm Movement.

Mon & Ester Isberto, former political detainees, were in the audience.

Mon & Ester Isberto, former political detainees, were in the audience.

BONI with UCCP Minister Al Senturias and wife Dr. Linda Senturias

BONI with UCCP Minister Al Senturias and wife Dr. Linda Senturias


Boni with Mila Astorga-Garcia, Ruth and Vic David

Boni with Mila Garcia, Ruth and Vic David