Random Thoughts of a Mindanaoan Artist
by Marili F. Ilagan

Yupanaw yang kanak lumon nga usog ngadi sangaon. Laong niya way kausbawan ngadi sa taas. Laong niya tukay sang baba yang kausbawan. Laong ko daw mali siya. Laong ko daw di paras ngadi sa taas yang baba… Iibanan ko yang kanak ama pati ina ngadi hangtud yukani yang mga yaka-unipormeng usog. Yagda silan ngadi sang kagubot. Gikan silan ngadto sang baba. Laong nilan silan yang mga tig-da sang kausbawan… Isa ka gabi sangaon, baynti dos kanilan. Madaig pa sang bilang ko sang kanak mga alima pati siki. Isunog nilan yang kanami baryo. Ipuwersa nilan kami nga laongon nami kanilan kung hain da yang mga rebelde. Tapos, isunog nilang sang tabako yang kanak likod… Yagkalantaon da lang ako. Ini na kanta yang yakahatag kanako sang paglaum para mabuhi. Katigam ako, mokani pag-isab yang kanak lumon. Tapos, dua da kaming magtukod pag-isab sang kanami i-puy-an.

That was my first writing in my mother and grandmother’s language. That was part of a monologue piece.

Since childhood, I have listened to my mother talk with her parents and tell stories to her siblings in that language—a strange one that she didn’t speak with my father and with us, her own children. I never understood it, never dared ask what it was. Years passed, and like magic, the language began to unravel, though I never got to speak it. I kept the unraveling to myself until I learned about the “culture of silence and assertion” in the early 1980s. In 1986, in one of our regular theater productions for nationalist advocacy, I spoke the language and even performed it.

I am part Mandaya, one of the ethnolinguistic societies in this country. I come from Davao, in the island of Mindanao, the southern Philippines. In terms of land area, it is the largest city in the world.

The cultural heritage of Davao is all about its being a melting pot of different peoples. In the early 1900, the government brought in the Northern and Central peoples of our country to occupy Mindanao’s vast lands. These increased the then 4.5 million original inhabitants—the talainged (now called lumad) and the Moro—of the island. By the middle of the century, these migrant settlers had established their supremacy in Mindanao, at the expense of the indigenous population.

My father was a later generation of these migrant settlers, though his coming to Mindanao was purely on account of his courtship and marriage with my mother.

With the waves of migration to Mindanao, intermarriages occurred. Major strains developed. One of these manifested in language. Davaoeño came into being, the language my great grandmother’s tribe created from infusing other migrant languages into their own Mandaya language. Davaoeño is a language that seems to be confined to being spoken and not written. Today, it remains oral, and is shunned in formal situations. It is the language that I used in introducing this presentation.

The piece comes from a vignette of Kaliwat theater Collective’s production titled Nag-alintabong Kabilin (Burning Legacy). It involves a girl who narrates the story of her village. Her brother left their mountain village for the lowlands in search of progress. Their old parents were left in her care. Shortly after, soldiers descended upon them, claiming that they were bringing progress to the mountain folk, but were actually in hot pursuit of some rebels. The girl tells us how the soldiers set fire to their village and forced them to give information regarding the rebels. She laments how the soldiers burned her body with cigarettes. She tells us her wish to survive. She tells us her hope that her brother would return soon so that they could rebuild their home and village.

My first involvement with theater was through writing, though I was a reluctant writer. In contrast, how I loved to perform! I say “reluctant” because I wrote in a language that, at some point in the past, had been imposed in our school. This imposition generated tension in my use of the Tagalog language, then considered as the national language. Tagalog is the language of the country’s urban capital, together, of course, with English.

I have not written too many plays, as well as poems and short stories. My play, Ang Titser, won first prize at a secondary school competition in 1975, and has been performed. I agreed to write in exchange for a role to perform. I was vying for the Best Actor prize. I wrote the play in Tagalog. Though I spoke Tagalog at home, I never spoke it straight because I also spoke Bisaya in the neighborhood. Anyway, I was unsatisfied with my first play. I felt that its language was stiff and not conversational. I won somehow, and I brought home four pens in assorted colors. I had really wanted to win as Best Actor.

As I grew in theater, so did the opportunities to perform. At that time, we were into collective theater work, including collective writing. For that, my colleagues and I felt that, rather than impose a body of rules, it was more important to create an atmosphere within which we evoked vivid themes from the real world. We shared personal experiences, thus establishing a community of thought and feelings. Our output was oftentimes a series of theater vignettes integrated with music and dance.

One output had been written, directed and performed by two women, a colleague named Geejay Arriola, and myself. It made a whole lot of a difference—writing and performing stories from the women’s perspective. The piece was Pagbati, stories of women during and after childbirth. It revolved around the view of women being the source of life. We wove poetry, songs, sketches of drama and comedy, and our favorite elements—chants and indigenous dance.

Why chants and dance? Probably because we moved in and out and among the indigenous peoples, particularly the talainged and the Moro.

With the talainged community, I began to know more about bubay, libon, malitan—the woman. “Talainged” means “of the earth, from the earth.” In my first visit to a B’laan village, I heard one elder libon say, “You’ll never know how we write our own epics, songs and riddles, and how we move our own dances until you come here and live with us . . . until you settle down with our Mother, the Earth.” As the libon was saying this, she chanted and moved about. It looked like she could not chant without body movement. That was all in their tradition—exactly like the fact that the talainged could not live without the land, just as order and sustenance were never separated from the meaning of life.

Literature and the performing arts are lived among the talainged. These are not merely read, written or watched. The talainged themselves don’t simply read and watch because their literature and performing arts are an integral part of their living.

Take the tale of Matutum. I do not see it as an idle tale but a reality lived by the B’laan, a product of the daily reflection of their experiences. Matutum, a maiden who lived in South Cotabato, took care of the weak Sandawa of Davao. Matutum and Sandawa eventually fell for each other, bore children, aged, and died. From their burial grounds, two mountains slowly rose, so the tale went. Matutum and Sandawa’s children, who were believed to be the talainged of Mindanao, now believe that Mt. Apo and Mt. Matutum were their ancestors. This explains their uncompromising stand regarding their land and ancestral domain.

Having found rich material from my immersion and being part-talainged, I dared use the said tale for a theater-playback in one of our cultural action projects among the B’laan of Columbio, Sultan Kudarat. I felt I had to return the art of making and enjoying theater to the people from whom drama emerged in the first place—the indigenous peoples, the talainged. It was very difficult for me because I preferred material that was generous with dialogue—which was not the way of the indigenous folk. So, I found myself translating my Bisaya, Tagalog and English into their language. I had hoped that in so doing, I’d be able to communicate with the talainged. I sensed that something was not right, that it was not merely a question of translation.

Then I explored the chants and dances and found them the more effective forms for the Mindanaon audience. Concluding a play also posed a difficulty for our theater collective. We invariably ended up doing a theater forum, with the audience providing the ending themselves.

With the program of immersion in the indigenous communities, I took up a new challenge in the field of writing—like integrating the traditional expressions with the migrant settlers’ language and the talainged vocabularies, or learning a talainged language and writing in the talainged language with a libon or malitan editor. In the end, the writings came out mostly as dance—theater or music—theater.

In Mindanao, we have few women artists who are solely playwrights, and they are outstanding. But unlike them, I have only written plays as an actor or director, never solely as a text author.

Seven years ago, the women theater artists of Mindanao organized Ova, a cultural event that stemmed from our years of passion as cultural workers. We could never rub out from memory the women and the children clinging in their arms as they told the tales of generations through their lively talks, soulful eyes, exhausted bodies. We’d like to think that Ova gave some meaning to the audience. But for starters, some men artists questioned their non-inclusion in the project. We thought we had to do it on our own to make a specific point.

For Ova, a colleague named Tisay Opaon and I wrote and produced the play, Ugpaanan. The two of us worked with some talainged groups regarding their right to self-determination. Tisay and I gathered stories that demonstrated the oppression, as well as the strength, of the talainged women. Ugpaanan or “Sanctuary” is a one-act play integrated, again, with dance and music. Far from being a masterpiece, it somehow fulfilled theater’s basic function of creating a worthwhile impact on the audience. The story is a moving testament to the unending struggle of the women of the talainged, who have been cast aside in society. The narrative carried the stories of three women—a 15-year old Manobo girl, a young lowland-assimilated Bagobo mother, and an old Mandaya shaman. All three lamented the plight of the talainged who lost their right to their God-given land and its blessings. Strangers to each one, the three found themselves together after having been driven from their homes. The culprits were the logging concessionaires and ranchers. Narrating their stories, the women were drowned in mystification and mistrust. But trust it was that was forged among them in a climax of a powerful tribal dance that signified their collective unity to define the future of their people. Now read this.

Felisa (the mother), carrying her baby and a transistor radio, enters, looking for her brother. She notices the old shaman, approaches her, then sits on a rock. She is about to nurse her baby but finds her turning blue… She hysterically approaches the old shaman. The old shaman is about to help her but Felisa panics. Felisa runs away.

As Felisa runs away, Igay, the young girl, comes running and shouting. She looks for a refuge. Apo Dyamon, the old shaman, is silent in one corner. Twilight comes and a blurred moon appears. Apo Dyamon takes a corn and hangs it to offer to the spirits. Then she lights a bright torch. Apo Dyamon does the ritual for the sick, she dances to drive away the evil spirit. Then she goes into a trance and engages her goddess in a conversation.

Meanwhile, Igay watches Apo Dyamon unnoticed. She tries to move away, fearing that she will be discovered. A house post falls and gives her away. The noise awakens Apo Dyamon from her trance. She sees the girl, crouches on the ground and chews her betel nut. Noting the girl’s fear, she wooes her attention by telling her a story.

Felisa enters weary and beaten from her long search. She switches on her radio. Igay bumps into her. Felisa tries to look for her but can’t find her. She faces Apo Dyamon and stares. Then slowly, she tells her story—about her baby lost from a previous illness, her husband who went off with the armed rebels, and her brother who is said to have been abducted.

The talainged culture is a painfully difficult subject for me to write about. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the bigger sectors, like the workers, peasants, etc., are also the bigger and more accessible subjects, while the talainged are always seen as the less significant and difficult sector. This means spending more effort and time for research and seeing to it that the subject is stageable. I could, of course, write a play on the talainged subject and leave the production to someone else. But I choose to write talainged or talainged-inspired plays because I am also committed in seeing them staged, and in experiencing the satisfaction of my words brought alive in performance.

Writing plays for me combines the individual creative process with the benefits of collaborative work, even if I am not always present in rehearsals. On the whole, I must, in a sense, ‘come out.’ I cannot hide behind text, and I am subject to the scrutiny and demands of co-workers—directors, performers, etc. For me, my work is never separated from the actor, audience, director and source.

The second reason for my hesitation to write relates to playwriting as a form. Writing plays commonly entails writing in dialogue. It is not that I am a stranger to talainged languages, but that I am accustomed to Tagalog, Bisaya, English. Though I have been learning one or two talainged languages, knowing even just one is torture enough if one doesn’t have the passion.

In general, I have found freedom in theater. Perhaps because theater (the way we define it in Mindanao), like oral tradition, doesn’t set rigid standards. As long as I live it, as long as I am clear about my development through the phases of reflection, protest and self-discovery, I’d be fine writing talainged or talainged-inspired plays. It is not my foremost aim to be published or to win an award, though publication or winning will definitely boost my efforts. As of the moment, I can only share and tell our stories though chants, dance, drama, and songs.

Now I would like to end my sharing with a story I read and which strengthened me regarding my role in society. There is so much more to do to make us, women, trust in our own capacities and believe in the wisdom that our femininity holds.

This is a story of how the earth was formed from the excreta of an earthworm caught by Bayi, a woman. Holding the wriggling thing in the palm of her hand, she stimulated it to produce the earth. She also gave birth to many descendants. From her fingertips came the wild boar, deer and other animals of the mountains. The next set of offsprings came from the tips of her toes. These were the marine and freshwater creatures. From her calves came the dogs, cats and chickens while her thighs yielded wild birds. Her genitals, as traditionally expected, produced three handsome sons.

This paper was read at the 2nd Conference on Asian Women and Theater in Mt. Makiling of Laguna in December 2000 by Marili Fernandez-Ilagan.