Tanghalang Pilipino’s Anak Datu, the theater company’s first offering for its 36th season—and its first major production since the lockdowns in 2020—is a play that tells three interwoven stories, inspired by and based primarily on the 1971 short story of the same name by National Artist for Visual Arts Abdulmari Imao, and directed by Chris Millado.
At its core, it is a remembrance of the history of Mindanao, told by a Tausug father (Marco Viaña)—a fictionalized version of the older Imao—to his son, a young, mecha-obsessed Toym. Through “Anak Datu” the short story, Toym learns of Karim, the son of a village chieftain in pre-colonial Sulu, who discovers the truth about himself: his roots, his history, and his destiny to bring peace and freedom to his people after unending struggle and war.
In Anak Datu, the interplay of myth, memory, and history is at the forefront, and the production brings together three stories from three vastly different periods of time and makes them come alive on stage: the 70s, during the time of Martial Law, when beloved show Voltes V was banned from being shown on national television; pre-colonial Philippines, during the time of sultans and datus, in which the goings-on of Imao’s short story unfold; and the gruesome, oft-denied, and harrowing massacres of Jabidah and Malisbong of the late 60s and the early 70s, taking with them the lives of over 5,000 Muslims.
“The history of Mindanao is a history of bloodshed and struggle,” says playwright Rody Vera over email. “And until recently (the Marawi Siege), it has not shown any sign of achieving closure or peace.” The actor, director, and playwright, whose works in his prolific career have included adaptations of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is behind this adaptation of “Anak Datu” for the stage, which, in its earliest iteration, was set to become a musical.
From musical to play with music
It was Tanghalang Pilipino’s Artistic Director Nanding Josef and Toym (Imao, son of the late National Artist, an artist in his own right, and this production’s set designer) who approached Vera to ask if he wanted to adapt “Anak Datu.”
“At first,” Vera tells us, “I was a bit reluctant because I had zero knowledge of the story. It was published in 1971 and they sent me a scanned copy of what looked like a thin, old book published in newsprint. Hardly anyone knows about this story now. And adding to the obscurity is the fact that the author, Abdulmari Imao, was known mainly as a sculptor–painter.”
It was after reading the story that Vera saw the possibility of staging it. “What made me a lot more interested was when I found out that Imao wrote this story in 1968, the same year that the Jabidah massacre was exposed, the same event that actually sparked the long war in Mindanao,” he says. “I felt my adaptation could not be confined to just the story any longer. It had to connect with these other narrative strands—or what Chris Millado called the interweaving of myth, memory, and history.”
Vera and Millado, who have been longtime collaborators for a multitude of different plays and concerts together, are reunited in this production. Anak Datu is also the inaugural show at the newest black box theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines and features members of Tanghalang Pilipino’s Actor’s Company, TP Artistic Director and veteran actor Nanding Josef, as well as several guest artists, including Tex Ordoñez de Leon as the voice of Putli Loling, narrating and voicing parts of the play, set to music by Josefino Chino Toledo.
Being one of the first major productions across local theater to premiere in a post-pandemic world, Anak Datu wasn’t without its fair share of challenges or major decisions to be made, whether of form or the beginnings of research. “The research [was a] challenge,” Vera says. “Because the play has several converging layers, covering the turbulent history of Mindanao, especially during the 70s and 80s, and the personal story of the author and his family (the Imaos) at about the time the short story was published (in 1968), it took a good amount of time watching documentaries, reading documents, news and interviews to put it all together.”
But it was the pandemic that affected production the most. “During the initial brainstorming,” he continues, “the concept was to adapt it as a musical. But in the following years, and during the pandemic, the artistic team decided to follow a different approach. And then eventually a third concept brought us to where it is now. The primary challenge was, of course, the pandemic, which halted the project by about a year and a half. It was in the second half of 2021 when I really started working on the script.”
Vera adds: “We were trying out an approach that would somehow also comply with health protocols, trying out the best way to gather an audience where they didn’t have to come together, as in a conventional show. That’s why the first draft was written as though the audience, allowed only to come in small groups, will do the ‘traveling,’ walking through different small acting spaces, still inside the theatre, and eventually ending up at the lobby with the final scene.”
“But as it turns out, that idea might have been riskier,” Vera says. “And, with the eventual lifting of some restrictions in mid-2022, we decided to go for the usual staging and seating.”
Theater that dares to remember
At the talkback following Anak Datu’s opening show last September 16, various members of the audience relayed to the cast and artistic team their appreciation and profound realizations from the play.
One such audience member who had just recently come from the coastal village of Malisbong—where Muslim civilians were murdered for over a month, during Ramadan, while they were praying—relayed the residents’ one wish following what had transpired in their home, their history, and their lives almost 50 years ago: a memorial of the lives lost, an acknowledgment of the horrors that had happened. “Kahit ‘yun lang daw,” the audience member had said, before giving back the microphone.
Over email, Vera opines on why Anak Datu is an essential watch. “It is important because it details the origin of this long war, indelibly linked to the tyranny of a power-hungry dictatorship. The myth of a ‘Muslim-Christian’ conflict, as though this was the real and primary cause of that long war shall have to be refuted. It is a myth perpetuated long ago and needs to be stopped. It is important because we need to realize as a people that the road to peace can never end with constant violence, but it also cannot end with just being silent or quiet about it.”
Most of all, it is important because it “tells stories that hardly anyone knows or talks about,” according to Vera. And what is theater for if not for telling stories that shed light on the unfamiliar, the unknown, the buried, and the forgotten?
What is theater for, after all, if not for remembering?
Anak Datu runs at the Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez, Cultural Center of the Philippines, until October 9, 2022.