by Pristine L. de Leon
▶︎ That the home is a place that confines a woman is the meat of many feminist critiques, but I wonder what the home meant for Liling, the lead female character in Daryl Pasion’s Papaano Turuan ang Babae Humawak ng Baril. She occupies the far side of the screen when we first see her, but it is the pitter-patter of her voice—that buoyant, constant, impatient, excited chatter—that rises above this small, brown hut. It’s probably the pixels (or my unsteady data) that make the walls appear a bit more tattered. The shutters are closed, making the interiors feel cold and stark, and the calendar, the home’s chief time-tracker, glows ghost-white with dust. Yet Liling attends to everything to turn this space into an environment of care. She makes it warm for us to settle. While other virtual plays at this year’s Virgin Labfest used photo sequences, pre-recorded videos, and news clips to project the tumult of the outside, Pasion’s piece, directed by Erika Estacio, didn’t take as much liberties with the visuals. We are grounded in the present. Home is the center of action here. Whatever happens beyond it is intimated only by way of reminiscences, or something similar to chalkboard drawing that reminds me of children’s books.
If we are to trust superstitions abiding by those old gender constructs — the kind that Pasion lists down for us quickly at the beginning of the play—then these two characters, Liling and her husband Oka, are meant for different destinies and spheres. “Sandok ang kailangan ko Oka, hindi baril,” says Liling, propping up that imagined divide between the warm, creative world of home-making and the cold killing field. Liling describes Oka as a civilian in the guise of a military man. The plot revolves around their brief reunion, when he comes home after a confrontation with the NPA, and Liling, pregnant with their first child, tries to coax him to stay for good. The meeting takes a hard turn when Oka recounts an encounter in the field that changes him, and it slowly becomes clear to us that he is walking Liling through a transformation just as harrowing.
I have constantly thought about Liling being pregnant, that she doesn’t want us or her husband to forget there are three of them in this room. Her stomach is bulging under a tight yellow T-shirt, and it isn’t the bulge of a small pillow-prop, but an arresting ripeness that wants to break into tender, wailing life. The assertion of a woman’s body as a mother in a way grounds the piece. The first few lines release a flurry of beliefs about mothers incapable of inflicting harm.
The statement, Kaya mahirap daw sa babae manakit, lalo na pumatay, kasi alam niya kung paano magdala ng buhay sa sinapupunan is a foreshadowing and a quick giveaway. Some more lines tease out the thoughts she attaches to pregnancy: it is in a way puhunan, a child as a possible ticket out of this place. Its promise also comes as a plea, or a bid for some normalcy. As the fruit is ripe and about to be reaped, we sense that the repetition of the line Isang buwan na lang, Oka is an argument for stay.
Parts of their early dialogue play out almost sweetly; it drifts and winds in the rhythm of everyday conversations as they bicker about sinigang, how sour it should be, her craving for manggang hinog, her cooking, until her mood goes sour and he makes her laugh a little. The situation is leavened by these snatches of tenderness. Lhorvie Nuevo as chirpy Liling does so well in sustaining this infectious cheerful pulse, that I want so badly to believe—for her sake—that Liling means it, all of it, that she could soften the thundering drum of conflict if only for a while.
Liling understands that joy, when it comes, is always brief. It is brutality wrought with impunity that is cyclical and enduring. Her meandering line of thought sketches a parallelism between this moment and that which happened years ago, when her mother prepared soup, set up the table, and undertook the so-called woman’s work of waiting. Liling now inherits this role of mother, of waiting woman, and at many points, I read her attempts to cajole Oka into staying as attempts to delay, or possibly to deny that her husband would eventually suffer her father’s fate. It’s never explicitly said that the latter was killed by the military, only that it was made to appear he died at the hands of insurgents.
Pasion’s material is not so much invested in fleshing out the specific backstories of these two camps, but it eagerly commits itself to undoing the binary, or at least loosening it, challenging it, by revealing characters who are stranded in between. To unsettle the rhetoric that reduces the world into two camps—military vs. rebels, state supporters vs. terrorists—is necessary work which gains urgency at this time. The play thus attends to the whys, slowly picking on and pulling up the small splintery parts, and lays them bare so that we too could resist a hasty verdict. It seems to suggest the insufficiency or the downright laziness of assigning a civilian the label of criminal, deranged murderer, or hard-hearted killer. Instead, the sympathy with which Pasion approaches these characters betrays a willingness to regard them as victims of circumstance.
After each loaded revelation, I find myself drawn to Pasion’s lines more than Eshei Mesina’s character interpretation, and wishing there was more restraint in the actor’s handling of pain especially in those crucial moments when fear of death clashes with the numbing certainty of its arrival. The writing could’ve also held back at this point, instead of hammering down metaphors to make sure they got through. Nonetheless, to regard the alternating, embodied dangers of gutom at kaba as affective facts reveals an imagination that is sympathetic, promising, and powerful.
I am led to pay close attention to where this compassionate gaze will take its characters. The play seems to reiterate a sense of vulnerability that tips over to helplessness, much like the state of two pawns caught in fatal crossfires. Their actions are mediated by gutom at kaba, their livelihoods reliant on cycles of tag-init at tag-ulan. While their fates are bound to natural forces, their lives are chained to oppressive social systems: landlords wield control over famers and their yields, while the military subdue their capacity for resistance. And if we do need a demonstration, if we need to feel those knives, those hands and eyes hanging heavy over what we assumed to be a safe and private space, Oka mumbles with certainty, Mamaya kakatok sila sa pintuan. Soon, the knocking comes, right on cue.
I imagine all this is done to reinforce that their fate is decided for them, by the state, the landlords, the warring camps, the powers-that-be, including the playwright, and perhaps us, the audience, observing them through this screen. The pieces are strategically positioned, locked in place to prove that these two pawns have no free will, no other move, no other choice, and as hope is extinguished, they are made to realize they also have no guilt.
This seems to be a crucial point in teaching a woman to hold a gun: Convince her it is not her hand, not her fingers, not her, that holds it, but always someone else. “Sila ang mamamatay tao, sina kapitan, ang may-lupa,” Oka insists. “Gutom lang ang baryong ito, pero hindi tayo mamamatay tao.”
What transpires at the latter half is a negotiation of meanings that underlies these acts. The play itself appears committed to plotting and marking this impossible space of transformation, where a woman’s resistance becomes acquiescence, where killing as brutality becomes killing as necessity. Home is Liling’s refuge. Yet the interior here is not just home, hideaway or harbor, but rather a place in which things slip between categories, manifest a crack, and admit ambivalence. In that small gray space that exists between two camps, the characters become unrecognizable even to themselves. I imagine the structure of this space as circular, in the shape of a womb, in the shape of cyclicality and passage. Oka’s psychological transformation was in the field with Andoy, while Liling’s is here, in this closed interior.
How does one teach a woman to kill? We piece together a short manual: 1) Guide her through the realizations that her husband could be as ruthless and cold as the men who killed her father; 2) Insist that shooting is not a brutal act but mercy killing; 3) Assure her it is not her fault, because it is not her will, it is not her choice.
Perhaps what I find most difficult about this material is that the ending appears to allow an embrace of this logic and not its questioning. The act of taking up the weapon defines her transformation, yet I am left wondering if this gesture is deserved. Must the character perform this gesture, assigned to her from the beginning, as it is after all the title’s culmination and fulfillment: to teach a woman to hold, thus to wield, to shoot. Yet more than that, does the woman deserve to be given this gesture as the ultimate expression of her agency, or does it merely serve as a convenient plot point hurriedly seen through?
In this particular festival, there was a tendency to deploy death as a final twist (that I half-expected someone would die or would already be dead by the time I watch the last features). While we could spin a plausible argument for how defeat and downfall constitute the currency of tragedy, there is also a danger for a gesture such as this to be emptied of poignancy and weight.
I am invested in this material not just because the text brims with so much succulence and muscle, but also since it is among the very few works—possibly the only play—in the festival this year that shows genuine palpable care for women, the one that responds to the complexity of a woman’s experience by aspiring for ambivalence and ambiguity. An hour of the play marks passage yet the ending belongs not to the space of becoming but the space of finality. The act is a verdict. It is hardly an expression of will and agency, but rather a forced move.
While it is to the play’s credit that it confronts us with the impossible question, What else could she have done? it is equally difficult to find something very empowering in a character who did as she was told. It makes me wonder how we could develop texts that do not just demonstrate the tragic death of our free will, the tragedy of a system that makes us choose between life or death, to shoot or not to shoot. How could we arrive at a play that punches a hole in this stifling binary? I am thinking of cracks, rifts, wide open windows that could enable the possibility of an alternative gesture. ***
Pristine de Leon is an art critic and teacher.