Why Bibeth Orteza wanted to play comfort woman Rosa Henson in Dulaang UP's 'Nana Rosa'

Leah C. Salterio

Posted at Feb 27 2020 06:08 AM | Updated as of Feb 27 2020 12:03 PM

MANILA -- She is known for her award-winning screenplays and her riotous scripts in TV sitcoms. But it is rare that Bibeth Orteza gets to act onstage, on TV and the movies. That’s why when an opportunity comes along, she makes sure to grab the chance and give her nod to the project.

In January last year, Orteza played early woman astronomer Annie Cannon in Repertory Philippines’ restaging of Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky.” Back in July-August 2017, Orteza did a play, “Boeing, Boeing,” in Singapore.

Early in March last year, Orteza got wind that Dulaang UP (DUP) was staging “Nana Rosa,” a play about the life of comfort woman Rosa Henson, writen by Rody Vera.

“I caught the play, with Peewee O’Hara, tickets courtesy of Alex Cortez,” Orteza recalled. “Nainggit ako. Inaway-away ko si Rody Vera, the playwright, for not telling me they were casting. Lalo na when Rody said Sherry Lara was supposed to have been Nana Rosa, except she backed out because she lived in the Kingdom of Parañaque, far, far away, so they got Upeng Galang-Fernandez.

“So when DUP decided to do a rerun and Upeng had schedule conflicts, they asked me last December if I was interested to do the role. Faster than a wink, I said, ‘Yes.’”

“Nana Rosa” was originally written as a screenplay by Vera, who adapted it into a play by Dulaang UP. Pages from Rosa Henson’s diary will be dramatized onstage. Her experiences as a sex slave are definitely harrowing and getting into the character is a real challenge for Orteza.

“There are sections in the script that hit you in the guts,” she offered. “The dialogue: ‘Binilang ko sila. Labing-dalawa, sa unang kalahating oras. Kaunting pahinga. Tapos, labing-dalawa ulit. Saka lang nila ako pinag-almusal. Umaga na. Sumisirit na ang liwanag sa maliit na butas sa dingding.’ You don’t even have to act, to feel the pain.”

Orteza hopes to see “Nana Rosa” turned into a movie one day. 

“I was familiar with the story also because my good friend, matron-of-honor-when-I-got-married Raquel Villavicencio, was related to Nana Rosa,” Orteza revealed. “People I knew in real life were involved in drawing Rosa Henson’s story out, sina Nelia Sancho, Lidy Nacpil, and Indai Sajor.”

Orteza’s husband, film and stage director Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, also megged “Red House,” a documentary on the comfort women, set in the infamous “Bahay na Pula.” The documentary was produced by Ascent and screened at The Hague, to elevate the case to the District Court of Tokyo.

Orteza laments that Henson’s fight must go on. That is perhaps the best lesson audiences can get from the story, though the protagonist had passed away in 1997. There were very few comfort women who came out to expose their stories and the abuses they received from the Japanese soldiers before.

“The lolas are dead, save for one,” Orteza said. “A memorial was erected in their honor, near the Japanese Embassy along Roxas Boulevard. It was torn down. While President Duterte initially did not want to accede to Japan’s request, through Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda, he agreed to have [the memorial] taken down."

The most depressing part of the entire narrative, as Nana Rosa says in the play, “Para nila akong ginahasang muli.”

“The lolas have not been recognized,” Orteza said disappointingly. “They have not been given justice.”

After “Nana Rosa,” Orteza will get busy writing screenplays anew for other projects she can’t reveal yet, “until we sign on the, uh, dotted line.”

The repeat of Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Katsuri,” her Tagalog adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” will be restaged this October at the CCP. Her play, “Bituing Marikit,” was also
chosen for this year’s Virgin Labfest.

"Nana Rosa" will run from February 27 to March 22 at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, 2nd floor, Palma Hall, UP Diliman, Quezon City.

Tickets to ‘Nana Rosa’ are now available at KTX.