A friend invited to watch Anak Datu at Tanghalang Pilipino in the Cultural Center of the Philippines vicinity last September 29, 2023, night. It was quite an emotional surprise with no knowledge of the show. I read the press kit containing written details about the production after the show and learned that it was a stage adaptation by playwright Rody Vera and directed by Chris Millado, based on the 1968 children’s short story written by Abdulmari Imao, 2006 National Artist for Visual Arts in the Philippines.
Imao wrote the children’s short story in anticipation of the birth of his first son, Abdulmari “Toym” Imao, Jr. The children’s short story tells about the son of a village chief in Muslim Mindanao in the pre-colonial period in the Philippines and later learns of the identity of his parents. The stage adaptation tells of the family dynamics of the child Toym Imao, the children’s short story, and the 1960s to 1970s massacre of Muslims in Mindanao during the administration of Ferdinand Marcos, the longest-serving president in the Philippines, who was known also for declaring Martial Law in 1972. The themes were identity, heritage, and peace.
Having read from the press kit, I learned that the playwright Rody Vera was one of the co-founders of the Virgin Labfest, a national playwriting competition for unpublished works, which I have been a fan of watching for a few years now; and Chris Millado is a festival manager of the Cinemalaya Philippines, festival for independent film, which I used to watch, though not really a big fan due to large crowd.
The show was held at the 2022 newly built black box theater, Tangalang Ignacio Gimenez, which can accommodate around 300 viewers, where seats are configured on two sides for the show. My seat at the center of the left side from the entrance had an ideal view to see the whole stage set with digital projections and light effects.
The opening act was breathtakingly beautifully done with colorful renditions and graceful art, dance, and musical pieces. Without much expectation, the rendition comforted the audience showing the imagination of the characters as Imao narrated the children short story to child, Toym.
The grand opening was followed by emotionally heavy acts on the 1968 young Tausug [ethnic profile] recruits who were killed in a mission with the Philippine army. I could not help to shed tears listening to the details of the scene, I had to wipe overflowing tears with my handkerchief for about five minutes. The stage was evidently small for the scene but paired with stage art, narration, music, and act, was definitely enough to capture sentiment of the audience.
For having little knowledge about the story, I was quite lost in the story sequence when the scene changed back to continue with the children short story about the son of a village chief. While my attention was immersed to the stage, I was a little bit late to notice that the background music had lyrics from the lady at a side narrating the details of the story. It was rewarding to find the singing lady with her intricate costume and gestures as she beautifully sang the narration.
There was a 15-minute break to move to the next act which was the 1970s massacre in a Mosque. Similar to how the 1960s massacre was rendered in the previous act, the small stage was not a hindrance to capturing the sentiments of the audience with the mosque ambiance and gravity of the killing.
The narration with descendants of the slayed Muslims was powerful to connect audiences with the sentiments. It was really emotionally intense as I was crying again for another few minutes in this scene.
The latter part of the act was about the child’s valorous response through persona of the village chieftain son in the pre-colonial period and Toym Imao as a child immersed in the 1970s Japanese TV animated show “Voltes V” dubbed in Philippine television, where the last few episodes were banned. The last performances were depictions of modern times similar to the 21st century setting and significantly different from the charm of the earlier act successfully grounding audiences to the present away from the previous emotionally dark heavy scenes. After all, it was a show to appreciate, as we got out of the theater and move on with our lives.
Impressions that left with me were the outstanding stage set, art, music, and dances. The dances with slow intricate footsteps grace and enchant heavy emotions in the scene, while the festive dances charm the audience. Personas of each character imprinted memories of their sentiments from devastation by death to gratitude from salvation. It was interesting to know that a national artist was involved and to hear personally through the press conference from Toym Imao, who was portrayed in the story. It is a good experience to understand the perspective of a national artist and a government that confer the national artist award.
The press kit had a portion stating about a vision to render the story geared towards children audience, which I would love to see. Making sensitive content geared towards children is very challenging. One of the benefits of achieving a children-friendly show is the opportunity to demonstrate to audiences how to communicate sensitive content and even adopt to daily conversations for character and community development.
There were statements that caught my attention, and vividly recalled, which I personally anticipate seeing significant development in the future in the interest on human development. Various audience exemplify values of the characters in one way or another and can justify intentions with faults interpreted by another. It was interesting to see personas with innocence and ideals, turned around by situations as they were defeated by temptations and lack of knowing better; and vice versa. It would be nice to see a positive turnaround for all characters that remained in the interest of developmental education.
The current version is a nice show to study and learn from. I would not advise watching the current version without guidance on interpreting the scenes due to the sensitive content. I was caught off-guard without a reminder for sensitive content which is announced before the show starts in other theaters. I recommend having a reminder for sensitive content. I recall the experience of watching sensitive content during my primary school to educate us about the harm for activities and compare it to the way I learned about risks through reading and work out effort to give a happy ending for everyone through studies of stages of development.
In this show, I am reminded also on education, faith, self-awareness, and interpersonal relationships that lead to identity, heritage, and peace.
Anak Datu will run from September 16 to October 15, 2023.
Written: Abigail Ko
Photos: AXL Powerhouse Network Group