Why now is the perfect time to stage a play on comfort women

Totel V. De Jesus

Posted at Mar 11 2019 05:11 PM

Peewee O' Hara as Nana Rosa. Photo courtesy of Dulaang UP

MANILA -- The gripping reminder on the sad fate of comfort women is retold in “Nana Rosa,” a new stage play by Rody Vera and directed by Jose Estrella for the University of the Philippines Playwrights Theatre (UPPT)-Dulaang UP, now on its final week at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater in UP Diliman.

“Nana Rosa” is Maria Rosa Luna Henson, the first comfort woman to share her experience in public. The cast is led by Peewee O'hara and Upeng Galang Fernandez, alternating as Rosa Henson. It ends the 43rd season of DUP and the 27th season of UPPT, the DUP arm dedicated to original plays in Filipino. 

ABS-CBN News spoke with playwright Rody Vera and Ina Azarcon-Bolivar, one of the dramaturgs on the creation of “Nana Rosa” and how important it is to be staged right now, a time of rampant misogyny and injustice. Azarcon-Bolivar also plays a reporter in the play and mostly handles the the talk-back after every staging. 

Excerpts from the interview.

Q: Kindly tell us the background on how and why the story of Maria Rosa Luna Henson was proposed as season-ender?

Rody Vera: Director Jose Estrella was looking for material to work on and I told her I don’t have a play material ready. What I have are film scripts that have been shelved. Maybe she might be interested in adapting one of them for the stage. My screenplay for 'Nana Rosa' was supposed to be filmed soon but eventually the project was halted. 

Jose got interested and asked me if I could adapt the film script for the stage. I was extremely reluctant with the little time we have left. Normally Jose and I would agree on a play for her DUP slot which is usually in February. By around October (2018), we would have a draft ready. But the stage adaptation wasn’t even ready by then. The difficulty was how to collapse scenes, cover a lot of narrated dramatizations with a minimum of set changes -- something that wouldn’t be a problem for a film script. 

Furthermore, the film script was a first draft and needed fact-checking, cross-referencing, more interviews form people involved. All this was done by Jose’s dramaturgs (Ina Azarcon, Isaa Lopez and Charles Yee, among others). 

They were able to interview Nelia Sancho and Indai Sajor, major players in Lola Rosa’s testimony that inspired other grandmothers to come out as victims of institutionalize sex slavery. With the added information, corrected misimpressions, the play was revised continuously. 

Ina Azarcon-Bolivar: 'Nana Rosa' caught our attention because it seems fitting because at the time of the selection, the comfort woman statue issue was still fresh. At the same time, we also thought that the comfort woman issue is slowly being edged out of public discussion and consciousness. 

The themes of the play are also resonant with the current issues confronting the Philippines at present: violence against women, military sexual slavery, and historical erasure.

This year's theme for the UP Diliman Arts and Culture Month is 'Lakad-Gunita sa Lupang Hinirang,' and 'Nana Rosa' is part of this month-long event. 'Nana Rosa's' theme under the event is 'Remembering as an Act of Courage' as the play celebrates the bravery of Maria Rosa Henson in sharing her story.

Q: Given the sensitive subject, what do you wish to achieve for the young audience to realize after watching 'Nana Rosa'?

Vera: This play is an appeal to remember what happened. People in power, governments have time and again revised history, erased what could damage the image of the state, etc. And for the young audience, so that they may know what was erased in history books. 

This has an indirect link to my mother’s experience during that same war. She pretended to be dead as Japanese soldiers plunged their bayonets on people they have shot in the horrible massacre in La Salle (she survived it, but her parents and two siblings died). 

We must remember these all. It gives a deeper and bigger perspective of ourselves as a people.

Azarcon-Bolivar: Just as in the case of Martial Law, we intend to share the story of 'Nana Rosa' to a wider, younger audience, who are not aware of the plight of the comfort women. It took Nana Rosa great courage to come forward with her story and we owe it to her to never forget what happened, the atrocities that she and many other Filipinos experienced during World War II. 

As artists, this is our way of giving the story of the Filipina comfort woman a space to be heard so that this generation may join in the fight for seeking justice for the horrors they experienced during the Second World War.

Q: 'Nana Rosa' comes after 'The Dressing Room,' which is a Japanese play. Was it a planned sequence or just pure coincidence? 

Vera: There was no plan to do a string of plays related to Japan. 

Azarcon-Bolivar: No, it wasn’t planned, just a coincidence.

Q: In relation to that, are you prepared for the reaction of the Japanese community in the Philippines, especially the diplomats? Recently, it was reported that the taking down of the comfort woman statue on Roxas Boulevard was meant to please a Japanese official. 

Vera: Only the Japanese government had reacted (with displeasure) on the issue, so far the play is in itself a reaction to the denial of the grandmothers’ rights to full justice and the state’s official apology and compensation. 

We are the ones who should react because of their unwillingness to recognize this issue. 

Azarcon-Bolivar: The play is meant to challenge all viewers to remember and not bury the story of comfort women. This shares with the audience a part of history, and the horrific experiences of women during this period. 

We cannot erase or escape these events. We are only exercising our right to express artistically an issue we believe in.

Tickets for the final weekend run, which starts on Wednesday, March 13, until March 17, Sunday, are still available.