Theater review: 'Anak Datu' is fresh, frank and fearless

Fred Hawson

Posted at Sep 18 2022 08:11 AM | Updated as of Sep 18 2022 11:01 AM

Nanding Josef in 'Anak Datu.' Photo by Max Celada for TP
Nanding Josef in 'Anak Datu.' Photo by Max Celada for TP

It all sarted with a short story written for young readers by National Artist for Visual Arts Abdulmari Imao in 1968. It was only about a kidnapping incident that happened in pre-colonial Mindanao. However, the fertile imagination of playwright Rody Vera was able to spin from it a complex multi-layered script that also involved the Imao family during the 1970s, as well as key events in the history of the Muslim conflict in the Philippines.

We meet Abdulmari Imao (Marco Viana) as a painter busy at work at his easel in their home, with his muse, his supportive Christian wife Grace de Leon (Antonette Go), by his side. They had a spirited young son Toym (Carlos Dala) who was obsessed with watching Japanese robot shows on TV, particularly "Voltes V," and was constantly engaged in imaginative game play inspired by his anime action heroes. 

We meet Jibin Arula, both as an eager Tausug teenager (Mark Lorenz) excited to be training with his friends, and as an old man (Nanding Josef) telling his story about how their adventure in Corregidor went wrong. The trainees found out that they were going to be used for a sinister purpose different from what they were told, so they sent in their objection. Arula was the sole survivor of this massacre, an event that sparked the Muslim insurgency in the country. 

We meet Datu Karim (Hassanain Magarang) and his wife Putli Loling (Lhorvie Nuevo) who were ambushed at sea by pirates, led by the notorious plunderer Jikiran (Earle Figuracion). Putli Loling's son Karim (also played by Carlos Dala) grew up recognizing Jikiran as his father. Jikiran would later confess his crimes to young Karim while showing him all his cache of treasures he had collected over the years, and apologize for them. 

There was a narrator in the person of Tex Ordonez-de Leon. We first meet her as the storyteller who would sing the ballads about Putli Loling. Later on, we will see her as well as an English-speaking Rita Gaddi-Baltazar type pro-Martial Law TV spokesperson, extolling the Folk Arts Theater, the Miss Universe Pageant 1974 and the Thrilla in Manila in 1975. Unfortunately, the live playing of percussion rendered some of her words unclear. 

In Act 1, it might take a bit of time for the audiences to settle into the groove of these multiple threads before they could be woven into the complicated patterns of its ambitious fabric of epic design. The changing scenes, with various characters being played by the versatile ensemble, can be confusing for those who have not read background information about this play. The pace of the storytelling was still slow, so it may be difficult to focus.

However, by Act 2, everything settled into place and the engagement factor picked up considerably. Each scene will hold your attention, be it about how Nur Misuari (Ahrjay Babon) established the Moro National Liberation Front, how the youth reacted when Voltes V was pulled out of the TV, or how Karim reunited with his father. The grand finale that put all the segments of the story together into one spectacular whole was genius.

Setting up the whole story was a challenge as they had to juggle with the different set pieces (designed by Toym Leon Imao) and colorful costumes (designed by Carlo Pagunaling) for each of these three stories being told. The lighting design by Katsch Catoy, and projection design by GA Fallarme completed the visual illusion. The hypnotic original music by Josefino Chino Toledo was played live with Muslim instruments, mixed into the sound design by TJ Ramos. 

The pangalay (the traditional dance of the Tausugs, done with elaborate poses of the body and the wave-like gestures of the arm and hands), as well as the martial arts fighting scenes were choreographed by Hassanain Magarang, and the PWU Indayog Gong Ensemble was very elegant to watch. Carlos Dala in particular was very graceful in both his dancing and fighting movements, quite an auspicious stage debut for this young indie film actor. 

TP artistic director Nanding Josef, TP associate artistic director Marco Viana and TP Actor's Company senior members Antonette Go and Lhorvie Nuevo delivered solid performances as would be expected of them. For their debut performance with Tanghalang Pilipino for live theater, new TP Actors Company scholars Arjhay Babon and Earle Figuracion made strong impressions in their prominently featured roles of Misuari and Jikiran respectively.

Director Chris Millado's ideas for the staging of scenes were fresh and innovative. The Imao living room had the easel, the television set and the coffee table were all on their own movable little stages. The scene where Jikiran's body was being wrapped with a white cloth for his funeral was haunting yet beautiful. The AFP soldiers taunted the MNLF rebels with lines delivered in a strange cadence and inflection. 

The show still managed to end on a positive note, with hope of real long-lasting peace among Filipino Muslims and Christians, conveyed in a closing anthem that amusingly sampled the "Voltes V" theme into it. However, there was a series of slides flashed on the screen at the end that had some ironic information in text form for the audience to read. It is just too bad it was difficult to finish reading some of these slides which had very long paragraphs.

Hearing the familiar introductory notes of the Martial Law anthem "Bagong Lipunan" which opened the play was a grim portent of the dark political themes the play would tackle. Rody Vera certainly minced no words when he described what the ruling government did during those years to cause Muslims to fight back. Vera's social and historical commentary about the events depicted in his play was frank and fearless.

“Anak Datu” is also the maiden production of the newly built Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez at the Cultural Center of the Philippines from September 16 to October 9.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."