MANILA -- Roselyn Perez, much-awarded theater actress in locally staged plays in English, was waiting for her ride home one night outside the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) Center in Quezon City.
She was standing alone in the middle of the entrance holding area.
"You know what, after reading the script, it feels like home," she told ABS-CBN News that night.
She's referring to PETA's opening salvo for 2020, Rody Vera's advocacy play on HIV/AIDS titled "Under My Skin." Described an "anthology drama" and directed by PETA veteran actor-director Melvin Lee, it will be staged at the PETA Phinma Theater starting February 7, this Friday, to March 22.
Perez is playing a medical doctor named Dr. Gemma Almonte, alternating with Cherry Pie Picache.
This is not the first time Perez is playing a doctor in play about HIV/AIDS. She won the Gawad Buhay award for best featured actress in a play for her performance as Dr. Emma Brookner in "The Normal Heart," which tackled the rise of HIV/AIDS in New York City in the early 1980s. The play was staged by Actors' Actors' Inc./The Necessary Theater in 2015 with a re-run the following year.
We asked her if she's met the real person whom Dr. Gemma Almonte is based on.
"No, I haven’t met her. I asked Rody if I could, but she doesn’t live in the country anymore, so my interpretation of her is completely gleaned from the text. I’d have to say that foremost in her mind is the fact that having HIV nowadays is no longer a death sentence. I think this would be the main difference between her and Dr. Emma Brookner, the character I played in 'The Normal Heart,'" Perez explained.
"She’s very rational in that sense, and dislikes the drama that can accompany a person with HIV, sees it as an impediment to getting well — you know, all the stigma. Stigma kills. I also think she has a sense of humor. But, because we’re human, there’s a moment in the play when we see her lose some of that dogged rationality," she added.
First play in Pilipino
But what intrigued us the most was that "Under My Skin" is Perez's acting debut in a play in Pilipino.
Apart from "The Normal Heart," theater fans remember her as Vanya in the hilarious "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" for Repertory Philippines, and Gertrude Ladenburger in Red Turnip Theater's cerebral "33 Variations."
"Yes, 'Under My Skin' is my first play in Pilipino and my first play with PETA," she said in a follow-up online interview.
We asked her to expound why she "felt at home" even after years of doing plays in English.
"Adjusting to the language wasn’t effortful at all. Apart from asking for the proper pronunciation and meaning of some words, which I was told was quite normal, I had a surprisingly easy time. It’s as if my tongue was raring to do this," she said.
In the movies, she said she's done cameo roles in the film adaptation of "Smaller and Smaller Circles," the Marlon Rivera-directed film series "Babae Sa Septic Tank," and Joel Ruiz's award-wining short film for Cinemalaya titled "Mansyon."
Last week, January 30, Perez experienced PETA night for "Under My Skin."
"It was nerve-wracking. Our first time with an audience as well. PETA night is a huge tradition in the company, so I heard some stories about previous PETA nights. They now give guest artists the option to not attend the critiquing afterwards which I took as I was also so tired from lack of sleep," she said.
There were lots of valuable insights.
"While gathering my stuff, I was able to hear some of the comments from the backstage monitor, and my first thought was: 'Oh, how civil.' I must’ve heard at least two to three people give their commentary on the play and they were intelligent, valid, and constructive. In fact, some of the things they had said were already on my mind," Perez said.
So could this be the the start of Roselyn Perez doing more plays in Filipino? Are we going to see her in future plays by PETA? And is there any dream role?
"Oh, gosh, I hope so. Can’t think of any dream role at the moment. Original material means birthing new characters and that’s always exciting. I’d love that," she said.
In an earlier statement, PETA cited reports from the United Nations Program on HIV and AIDs (UNAIDS) revealing the Philippines as the No. 1 country with the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world, with an estimated 70,000 cases at the end of 2018.
In July 2019, there were 1,111 newly confirmed HIV infections, or 36 new cases per day. It's an alarming spike from 2008 data that reported only one new case per day, and the ages affected are now becoming even younger.
In the play, Dr. Gemma Almonte did a research showing a 90-percent spike in the number of HIV cases among men who had sex with men along with a steady rise of mother-to-child transmissions.
Dr. Almonte's prediction of the future is bleak and her only hope is a change in public perception, an increase in compassion, and a society afflicted not with ignorance and prejudice, but with compassion and understanding.
In an earlier statement, "Under My Skin" director Melvin Lee said, "The play will not only provide the pertinent information about the disease but it will also showcase the wide range of characters that will inspire compassion and humanity in audiences."
There's the story of Dino (played by Dylan Talon alternating with Ekis Gimenez), an incurable DOTA player who found out he is HIV+ through a contraction of tuberculosis.
Another is Mary Rose (Gold Villar-Lim, alternating with She Maala), who discovers her young son has an HIV-related gastro-intestinal infection. She learns that she had passed down the virus and had contracted it from her husband.
There's also the story about a flamboyant gay beauty parlor employee who was suing his employer for discriminating against those with HIV.
The others in the cast are Eko Baquial, Miguel Almendras, Mike Liwag, Gio Gahol, Anthony Falcon, Mico Esquivel, Bene Manaois, Lotlot Bustamante, Kitsi Pagaspas, Erold Enriquez, Jarred Jaicten, Joseph Madriaga, Jason Barcial, Roy Dahildahil, Csai Habla and Ekis Gimenez.
Dudz Teraña, who played the bubbly bimbo Thalia in "Care Divas," is back on stage with a very special role.
Dramaturgy is by Eric dela Cruz, production design by Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tabije, lights design by Ian Torqueza, music and sound design-arrangement by Migs Cortes, video design by Steve Tansiongco, choreography by Nicole Primero and Bubbles Deriada.
Education, critical thinking
PETA executive director Beng Santos-Cabangon told ABS-CBN News in an earlier interview that through this play and via partnership with Love Yourself, Inc. and The Red Whistle, PETA is hoping to raise awareness and start a conversation on HIV/AIDS.
As the cases of HIV rise in the country, UNAIDS initiated the 90-90-90 approach. It is a new target for HIV treatment by 2020 whih means 90 percent of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status, 90 percent of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy, and 90 percent of all people receiving anti-retroviral therapy will have viral suppression.
"The Philippines has one of the highest rates of HIV but the sad thing is dito sa bansa natin, it's a sensitive issue. I have a friend who think it's a stigma to have AIDS/HIV. It's an elephant in the room. He can't even tell it to his closest friends. He died. It's so sad kasi meron namang mga gamot," PETA president CB Garrucho said.
Compared with their previous productions, PETA artistic director Maribel Legarda admitted "Under My Skin" is a bit more serious. "Well, am not saying 'Rak of Aegis' is not serious but this one is very current and the issue tackles an immediate problem," she said.
"The numbers are alarming and age groups are disturbing. Imagine as young as 15 years old. What's killing people is the ignorace and lack of compassion," Legarda added.
"Under My Skin" will have a total of 36 shows with talkback sessions after every performance.
"The point is not more on discussing the content but what they (the audience members) can do about it," Legarda said.