The novelist who began a revolution
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - June 20, 2020 - 12:00am

June 19 was the 159th birthday of our national hero Jose Rizal. Have you ever wondered if there is any other country in the world where the national hero is a novelist shot for his books?

Rizal is not the only father, but one of the fathers of the nation – a long line of heroes that began with Lapu-Lapu and continues today, with our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

Rizal’s image has been replicated everywhere: monuments and match boxes, T-shirts and bags, movies and musicals. I have collected various modern texts alluding to Rizal and his works, and might one day sent the manuscript to the Ateneo de Manila University Press, in whose old Manila campus Rizal studied.

The University Press also published Batang Rizal at Iba Pang Mga Dula by Ateneo Prof. Christine S. Bellen. Our writer teaches at the Department of Filipino of Ateneo and she grew up in Pili, Bacacay, Albay. She is a scholar of children’s literature and creative writing. She studied at the University of the Philippines for her BA and MA, and took her PhD in Children’s Literature at Hongkong Baptist University on scholarship.

Bellen’s foreword on the creative process in the writing of Batang Rizal is most instructive. After the reputable Philippine Educational Theater Association asked her to turn Mga Kuwento ni Lola Basyang into a play, her next assignment was to create a play on Rizal’s childhood.

Maribel Legarda asked her to frame the play so it would link the child Rizal of the 19th century to the Rizal of the present. I reviewed the play when it was first shown at the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA).

I am old enough to remember watching the plays of PETA at the Rajah Sulayman Theater, in the ruins of Fort Santiago in Intramuros. After watching a highly controversial play during the darkest days of martial law, we would go home but would quietly watch our backs, lest some Marcos secret marshal would be following us.

I watched Ateneo teacher Christine Bellen’s play, Batang Rizal, at the new and lovely home of PETA in New Manila. It’s a charming musical about the young Rizal, and on the way there, the playwright said to me that what pleased her most was the audience the day before – a gaggle of around 50 kids who had filled up a school bus. As they say, if you can please such a young – and certainly most difficult – audience, you can please the most hardboiled critic of them all.

And pleased they certainly were, and so were we, when we watched the musical unfold. A small stage and a low-tech production did not hamper the unraveling of this memorable work directed by Dudz Teraña. In 2007, the young Pepito (the talented Christian Segarra) of Jose Rizal Elementary School breaks the face of Jose Rizal’s statue newly commissioned by Mayor Ishmael Rapcu (played with pitch-perfect, idiom-breaking English by Wilfredo Casero).

The indignant and corrupt mayor then threatens the teacher (Bernah Bernardo with the funny, rubbery lips) that he would shut down the school unless the statue is fixed. The poor, hapless Pepito – butt of jokes for being poor and thin, has to do something – and quick! He then stumbles upon a big book containing the biography of Jose Rizal. He enters the realm of the book and is transported to 19th-century Philippines, during the time of the young Rizal.

This literary device, of course, is nothing new. It has been used in a variety of texts, notably in The Never Ending Story. But it works seamlessly here. For when Pepito and Pepe (the young Rizal) meet, past and present clash. Not only language, but the great horse of politics neighs wonderfully here. Pepe gives Pepito a seven-day tour of his time, starting with Domingo (Sunday). The bells ring and the fraile comes, punishing the Indios for the smallest mistake.

When Pepito said to Pepe (in my English translation): “So during your time, the authorities punish those who they think defy them and make them disappear?” Pepe nods. And Pepito said something that made our blood run cold: “Oh, it’s the same with us. Nothing has changed.” It makes you pause, in this day when an Anti-Terror Bill instead of a comprehensive anti-COVID 19 plan is being foisted on the hapless Filipinos.

I like this play because it shows you that history should never be a bitter pill to take for our children. The young people in the audience had a merry time watching it. They rocked and rolled to the rap song of The Monkey and the Turtle, with shadow-play animation by Don Salubayba. They sat entranced when Donya Teodora Alonso Rizal sang to the young Rizal, telling him not to be like the moth that came too close to the candle flame, thus burning its wings. But when the young Rizal (played with wide-eyed wonder by Abner Delina Jr.) said, “Yes, Mother, but the light! How bright the light!” another shudder runs down my spine.

Those of us who follow our passion with everything we have in our lives should know how that line feels.

Later, it is the young Pepe’s turn to vault onto 21st-century Philippines, with its color and cruelties. The stage becomes a rainbow coming from the students’ costumes and the spectrum of light. But the very same children could also be a source of cruel lines against the poor. These insights do not come heavy-handed because they are sung, or danced, or shown through gestures (the sticky Spider-man act of one of the young bullies, complete with a hissing like that of a sssssnake).

In the end, the play asks questions on the notion of a hero. Is he only the one cast in stone? Or venerated blindly by people who do not know him? How to be a hero in a society that hails the ignorant and rewards the corrupt?

One answer lies in breaking time and space and bringing us back the young Jose Rizal – who also gets upset, is lazy, proud, fearful, friendly and, in the end, lonely. But even if the young Rizal knows he would die, he still returned to the past so that this would happen, so that we would all be free. From his fear he flew straight into the light, like the moth with its wings, into our hearts.

(Danton Remoto is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. His website is www.dantonremoto.com)

JOSE RIZAL
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