It’s an artist’s world, too: ‘Dekada ’70’ musical proves art can still push social discourse
In a time of human rights violations and other injustices, the stage adaptation of Lualhati Bautista’s novel is a pointed reminder of the hard-won freedom Filipinos deserve
Feb 26, 2020
A day after the 34th anniversary of the first People Power Revolution—the mass movement that toppled the authoritarian regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos—I see online posts from people who still believe in the “merits” of his presidency, and question whether patronizing the businesses of Marcos supporters means condoning the family’s atrocities during their 21 years in power (issues that they have not paid for to this day).
It’s terrifying, if not unsettling, to see how little has changed since the fall of the Philippines’ greatest dictator.
I say great not in the positive sense, but only to highlight the magnitude of what he did. Injustices, human rights violations, graft and corruption, among many others, are issues that still plague our society six presidents and over three decades later.
People are left wondering if things can even change for the better.
That terrible truth has been sitting in the back of mind for many Filipinos, myself included, but that question too remains unresolved to the point of near hopelessness. But it’s interesting how sometimes, all it takes is a few voices to awaken these emotions from their long slumber with words like “Bayan, bayan, bayan ko, ’di pa tapos ang laban mo!”
It’s this thundering chant, sung at the top of the lungs of “Dekada ’70”’s cast, that roused the opening weekend crowd into a spirit of deep, almost indignant reflection over the state of the nation and what we can do about it.
“Dekada ’70” is a musical adapted from the novel of the same name by award-winning author Lualhati Bautista. The 1983 book came out to near-immediate critical success, becoming a landmark piece of contemporary Filipino literature. With its code-switching Taglish and casual, narrative tone, it gave readers a look into national issues of the time, framed by snapshots of life for Filipinos—and Filipinas, too. This was done through the eyes of protagonist Amanda Bartolome, a woman in a so-called “man’s world,” ruled by a strongman and his Martial Law.
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The novel spurred a multi-awarded film in 2002, a year after the second EDSA Revolution (yet another tumultuous period in history). Almost two decades after the film, and almost four after the novel’s publication, the seminal work was adapted in 2018, this time for the stage, as a thesis production by playwright, director and dramaturg Pat Valera.
Now on its third run, the musical comes at a most important time as the country continues to face threats to freedom of speech, human rights and its very sovereignty.
But aside from having a noteworthy subject matter, the musical also deserves to be lauded for its technical aspects.
Foremost are the words and music used throughout the play. Written by Valera with musical director Matthew Chang (both of whom also worked together crafting the hit musical “Mula Sa Buwan”), the songs deftly made use of Bautista’s original text, and added depth to the characters.
The number “Payapang Pampang” turns a memorable line in the novel (originally written and framed as a gift from Mara, the wife and comrade of the oldest Bartolome son, Jules) into a song shared by the main female characters—the wives and mothers of the play.
The songs help develop certain characters, like how “Minsan May Tahanan” gave a look inside Julian Bartolome’s mind—a perspective the novel and the film did not explore in-depth. Juliene Mendoza gives a heartrending performance as the Bartolome patriarch, his simple words lamenting how the house (or home) that he had built to shield his family from the world had become not a haven, but a prison.
But with “Dekada ’70” being a protest piece, it’s expected to have rousing, street-worthy anthems, like “Bayan, Bayan, Bayan Ko.” Obviously inspired by the patriotic kundiman “Bayan Ko” that gained cult popularity during Martial Law, the song is also quite literally the rallying cry of the play. The resounding protest, sung by the ensemble along with Jules and Willy, marks the point in the story where things “get serious,” so to speak.
Aside from the music, it’s also worth noting how the production is able to take its audiences back in time through visual cues like costumes, and through context by the social norms acted out. The set, on the other hand, is more bare—mostly wooden scaffolding and a few benches, chairs and tables that are moved about in the theater in the round to signal scene changes.
Even so, the details of each prop add meaning to the scenes. The chairs, for example, is itself a symbol of power, with each having varying designs. The most ornate one belongs to Julian Bartolome, enthroned as head of the family. The Bartolome brothers have similar solid wooden chairs, while their mother Amanda’s is smaller, possibly denoting what little say women had at that time. It made watching the play’s power dynamics all the more interesting, such as when a solitary Amanda would sit in Julian’s chair and reflect on her role, or the key scene when a livid Julian topples his own chair as Amanda coldly begins to assert herself.
Witness the journey of a family as they lose, rediscover, and fight for their voices during one of the darkest moments…
In fact, aside from the protests and the depictions of Martial Law atrocities (which should serve as eye-openers for the unaware), one of the most satisfying scenes to watch is Amanda’s cry of “It’s a woman’s world, too!”, a sign of her growth into a more firm, even militant, character,
But if the musical is to prove what this world is of, too, it’s that it is also an artist’s world.
Valera noted in his speech before one show that on opening night, there was a mix of adults and their children in the audience. As they were exiting the theater, he heard their discussions on whether the events of the play were true; this only asserts that art does have power in pushing forward important thought and opens the gates to discourse.
It’s an artist’s world, too. And today’s artists are no longer making art for art’s sake.
Black Box Productions’ “Dekada ’70” features Stella Cañete-Mendoza as Amanda, Juliene Mendoza as Julian, Jon Abella as Jules, Vincent Pajara as Gani, Esteban Fulay Jr. and Boo Gabunada alternating as Em, Iggi Siasoco as Jason, Abe Autea as Bingo, Juan Miguel Severo and Paw Castillo alternating as Willy, Matel Patayon as Mara, Gel Basa and Justine Peña alternating as Evelyn, Victoria Mina as Tess, and Phi Palmos, Tope Kliatchko, Rona Raissa Angeles, Sabrina Basilio, Tristan Bite, Jerome Dawis, Ian Hermogenes, Vino Mabalot, Eizel Marcelo, Shaun Ocrisma, Jermaine Choa Peck, Joshua Tayco, Khalil Tambio and Ashe Uy as the ensemble.
Photos courtesy of Reamur David/Dekada ’70
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