MANILA -- The mythical bird called sarimanok from Mindanao, with its long tail and multi-colored feathers, has long been identified with the major works of Maranao painter and sculptor, National Artist Abdulmari Imao. It can be said, if BenCab has his Sabel and Fernando Amorsolo had the “dalagang Filipina” as their more prominent subjects, Imao had the sarimanok.
But how did Imao, long before he was conferred with the Order of the National Artist for the Visual Arts in 2006, choose to recreate variations of the sarimanok in his artworks?
Enter Tanghalang Pilipino’s second offering for its 36th season, “Anak Datu,” a play with music. Based on the short story of the same name for children written by Imao in 1968, the adaptation by Rody Vera and Chris Millado explores the mind of the young visual artist and correlates it with recent historical events that shaped the lives of the Tausug and the Muslim Filipinos.
The story was written by Imao just a few months before the birth of his first son Abdulmari Jr., now an artist in his own right and known by the name Toym Imao.
Toym has worked with TP many times as set designer, including the much-awarded biopic musical about Apolinario Mabini “Mabining Mandirigma” and the avant-garde rock opera, “Aurelio Sedisyoso”. He returns with TP’s “Anak Datu” again as set designer, his first after the three-year long pandemic.
As recounted by Toym and Vera, “Anak Datu” is a story about the son of a village chieftain in Muslim Mindanao during pre-colonial Philippines. Before he is born, their village is raided by pirates. His mother gives birth under captivity. He grows up with the knowledge that his father is a former pirate from the land of the Tausug. When the old man dies, only then the son realizes the truth about his real father.
Vera added more layers into the story by interweaving with the original plot other events in the history of Mindanao and the personal lives of Imao’s family. As how we term it today, “Anak Datu” has become “multiverse.”
“Anak Datu” is the first major production of TP since the COVID-19 pandemic closed all live venues and events in March 2020. It is also the first time after about 15 years that Vera and Millado will collaborate again for a TP production.
The last one they did was “Mga Gerilya Sa Powell Street” in 2008, an adaptation of the novel about World War II veterans struggling to survive in North America written by US-based Filipino journalist Benjamin Pimentel.
Before that, there were the three novels from the Rosales Saga of National Artist F. Sionil Jose. First was in 2002 with “Balete,” an adaptation of “Tree” and staged by the Philippine Educational Theater Association.
It was followed with “Mass” in 2005, this time with TP for its 18th season. It was a sensational production because Yul Servo, now Manila Vice Mayor, played the lead Pepe Samson.
In 2007, the formidable Vera-Millado artistic tandem again reunited when TP staged “Ang Mga Huwad,” from F. Sionil Jose’s “The Pretenders.” It created further buzz in the theater scene because it was former 1980s teen heartthrob Romnick Sarmenta who played the lead Antonio Samson.
But as revealed to ABS-CBN News, Vera and Millado have started working together as playwright and director since their college years at UP Diliman in the late 1970s to early 1980s.
“I’ve collaborated with Rody since I started directing. Our first theater project together was an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ -- the first full length play I directed for theater school at the University of the Philippines,” Chris Millado told ABS-CBN News.
“We’ve been friends for more than 40 years. I guess that explains why we have a keen sense of each other’s artistic instincts. That relationship brings so much spontaneity, joy, fearlessness and trust into the creative process -- qualities that make approaching a new work like ‘Anak Datu’ really fulfilling,” Millado added.
The feeling has been mutual, so to speak, for Vera also has high respect and praises for Millado and his methods.
“As a director, Chris Millado would prefer taking the untrod path. Especially with new work, such as ‘Anak Datu’,” Vera told ABS-CBN News in an online interview.
"He would take this an opportunity to think out of the box, avoiding the safe and heading straight for more exciting and uncertain possibilities. Even in script development, being a playwright himself, he builds on what is given in the draft, and many times toward a direction that even I wouldn’t think possible,” he added.
“He told me before that he approaches material with a vague hunch. He carries this hunch and sees if it grows, all through rehearsal. Whether it works or not is part of the thrill, I guess,” Vera said.
Powerhouse cast, guest artists
Playing the young National Artist Abdulmari is TP associate artistic director Marco Viaña. On some performances, he is understudy for the role of Nur Misuari. TP artistic director Fernando Josef plays the old Jibin Arula, the lone survivor of the infamous Jabidah Massacre.
Other major roles are played by TP Actors Company senior members Antonette Go as Imao’s wife Grace de Leon and Lhorvie Nuevo as the dancing Putli Loling.
“Anak Datu” also has guest artists Tex Ordoñez-de Leon as the singing narrator, Carlos Dala as Binatang Karim/Imao and Sining Kambayoka member Hassanain Magarang playing Datu Karim. Magarang also functions as choreographer.
For their debut performance with TP in a live theater, to be introduced in various roles are TP Actors Company scholars Edrick Alcontado, Arjay Babon, Mitzi Comia, Judie Dimayuga, Earle Figuracion, Vince Macapobre, Aggy Mago, Sarah Monay, Heart Puyong and Mark Lorenz.
Joining the artistic tandem of Millado and Vera are composer and musical director Chino Toledo; choreographer Magarang; set designer Toym Imao; costume designer John Carlo Pagunaling; sound designer TJ Ramos; lighting designer Katsch Catoy and projection designer GA Fallarme.
“Anak Datu” comes to Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez from September 16 to October 9.