A Theatrical Production Aimed at City Officials Spotlights the Slums

Manila | 04/30/2013 11:29am
Purple Romero | Informal City Dialogues

For Manila’s theatrically inclined informal settlers, all the city’s a stage.

Since 1987, different groups of people whose communities face demolition have put on a yearly play in front of the offices of government agencies. The bright incandescence of the sun is their lighting, and the theater is the city itself, with all the noise, traffic and conversations that bring it to life on a daily basis.

Princess Asuncion, media officer of the Urban Poor Associates (UPA), a network of advocates for safer relocation of the urban poor, said that every year they perform their own versions of two plays familiar to this predominantly Catholic nation: The Nativity and the Senakulo, a Lenten play depicting the sufferings of Jesus Christ.

But with a twist: The stories have been modified to portray the very modern plight of the city’s informal settlers. An annual “People’s Calvary” shows the various “crosses” that the urban poor must bear – lack of jobs, rising cost of living, insufficient access to government services. The participants literally carry huge crosses, some of them even wearing masks and fake crowns of thorns on their heads.

As the years have gone by, however, Asuncion said that the message of the plays has been losing its power. The people it was reaching had become inured to the annual spectacle.

“We were preaching to the choir,” she said.

Hence, in 2012, UPA decided to bring the play to a real theater with the help of the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA). This time, there would be a real stage, lights, cues, curtains and costumes. Tickets would be sold. There would be seats, and those seats, they hoped, would be filled with public officials and an audience from various backgrounds – representatives from academia, the private sector, the city’s youth and so on.

The message of the story remains the same, however, and so do the actors, who are the urban poor themselves.

The play was called Maryosep, a Filipino expression that conveys dismay. (It’s an amalgam of “Jesus, Mary and Joseph”). In this re-telling of the Nativity scene, a pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph are looking for a place to stay on Christmas Eve. But Maryosep modifies this familiar story – Mary and Joseph are impoverished rural immigrants who decide to try their luck in the city and find an urban community that faces demolition.

To find their actors, UPA and PETA conducted auditions in September 2012 in Estero de San Miguel, Baseco, Del Pan and other communities in Manila where many informal settlers live.

“When we went to the communities, we saw a lot of children who wanted to audition,” said Jessa Margallo, a community organizer from UPA who became the play’s stage manager. Those who tried out for the play had to sing, act and dance before Margallo, one of the members of PETA and the director of the play, who’s also from the theater group.

One of those who impressed the judges was nine-year-old Aurora Luis Biscocho.

I met Aurora at UPA’s office in Quezon City. One of the first things that struck me about her was her big, black eyes. They convey slivers of innocence, mischief and wonder. They sparkle as she points to an imaginary car, her fingers grazing its invisible exterior. “Wow, this car looks nice. It must be new,” she says, those inky eyes wide with wonder. Then someone shouts at her, tells her to stop touching the vehicle. She recoils in fear.

Aurora was the star of the second act of the play, in which she performed beside professional child actress Milcah Wynne Nacion, who has her own show on GMA-7, one of the country’s biggest networks. Aurora played a poor girl and Milcah played her rich friend. Their communities are divided by a wall – in order to visit each other’s homes and maintain their friendship, they have to cross a social, economic and literal divide.

There is no video of the play, but Princess showed me pictures of its different scenes. I saw Aurora and other kids clad in colorful attire, frozen in dance positions, beautiful scenery painted behind them. One picture showed Aurora and Milcah playing while an adult woman in a simple outfit and a man in a suit talk with stern expressions on their faces. Princess explained that those were the parents of Aurora and Milcah’s characters. “For the kids, they see nothing wrong in being friends even if they have different situations in life,” she said. “We can’t say the same for the adults.”

Another part of the play told the story of a teacher whose brightest student, Hope, stopped going to school weeks before graduation. The teacher goes to her community – Hope lives by the port — to look for her and sees that its homes have been demolished. A distraught-looking man in fisherman’s clothes is playing a guitar and singing, the words “barbaric eviction” flashed against the backdrop behind him.

The play reflects the lives of those who made and starred in it. One of Aurora’s co-stars, 50-year-old Gil Villareal, said the two-hour play encapsulated the emotions informal settlers feel when threatened with demolition.

“There is confusion. We ask ourselves, what do we do?” he said. The play, he added, also shows how demolition could either create a sense of community or destroy it. “Some focus only on themselves. All of us are victims, we all suffer, but some forget the state of their neighbors. There are those who bond over the struggle, though.”

Gil knows from experience. Tall, lanky and affable, in 2010 he became an accidental leader of the Ugnayan ng Lakas ng Apektadong Pamilya sa Baybaying Ilog Pasig, a group that seeks safe relocation sites for informal settlers living near waterways. His family used to live in Juan de Moriones, a busy street near bustling Chinatown. He was working as a parking attendant earning a dollar a day when, in May 2010, a fire razed the houses of some 300 families. One of those houses was Gil’s.

After the fire, the community built themselves shanties near a mall in Chinatown, an important shopping district. That October, local authorities gave them notice that their houses would be demolished.

So far that hasn’t come to pass, and Gil has been trying to dialogue with local officials. They want the government to consider “the people’s plan” — their proposal for in-city resettlement.

This is where the play came in. In its audience were government officials from the National Housing Authority and the Department of Interior and Local Government.

“We want to show them why demolition drastically changes lives,” said Princess.

PETA senior artist-teacher Wilson “Bong” Billones said that after the show, one of the generals who saw it approached them and said he wanted the play to be shown to his policemen. He wanted them to understand how essential coordination is with informal settlers and why their human rights must be respected.

Other reactions were less positive. One official from a housing agency said the play’s allegation that the relocation site in Montalban stood on a geohazard zone was false. Gil said this is true, and cited how relocated settlers there experienced flooding after a typhoon in 2012.

Princess said the play was able to relay to the people in power how multifaceted the impacts of demolition are. Despite this, they probably won’t be able to present it in the theater again – the production cost $12,000 USD.

They will continue the 25-year tradition of conducting the plays regardless, however – the streets are, and will always be, their theater. And even there, it can still have impact. In 2010, three days after they performed outside the Malacañang Palace, where the Philippines’ top leader lives, President Benigno Aquino III met with them and signed a covenant supporting in-city or on-site relocation.

“The play works,” said Princess. “We will not stop doing it.”