by Andrea N. Macalino
▶︎ When used to describe a theatrical production, the word “captivating” belies precarious implications. Even used as a form of praise, it assumes, for the work being discussed, a consistency and depth that the same work must hold on to throughout its entire script—and all in one breath, too! Audience and critics, as observers, might mistake this as easy enough to pull off, but Sari Saysay’s Wala Nang Bata Dito (directed by Tanya Lopez) quickly strips anyone of that notion.
(Un)Packing the Narrative
The first five minutes of the production, when Dolor (Venise T. Buenaflor) sits on a rickety table folding laundry, is easy enough to accept as premise. However, as the play unfolds, the audience learns that the sing-song, well-loved Nanay, Tatay gusto ko ng tinapay is not meant to create an atmosphere of domesticity at all, but instead serves to imply (not confirm) the presence of a child. This child is none other than that of Dolor, who is scheduled to be fetched from their decrepit home. Thereafter, she faces a future life in the nebulously-called Bahay ng Pag-Asa: a rare, special place, Dolor says, which will mean that her daughter is already meant to surpass her mother in both distance and perhaps even opportunities in life.
The script is punctuated with reflexive, self-deprecating mockery of poverty, as only those who live in it have the right to express. Dolor tells her daughter that her underwear has been labeled: one for each day, and that she has even packed two extra pieces. And why not? As Dolor says, “Hindi porque’t mahirap tayo, wala tayong panty.”
That the audience laughs becomes an interesting segue for a couple of questions. For instance, do we laugh because we’d like to believe ourselves rooting for the urban poor to have enough underwear? Or do we laugh because we’ve never had to worry about whether poor people even have underwear?
It must be said too, that such hard-hitting questions are helped by the minimalistic use of lighting, props, and set design. Aside from the table that supports her child’s clothes, bags, and Dolor herself, there is only some makeshift background suggestive of life near the sea, less indicative of a serene life than the lack of material excess that only the poorest fishermen can know. Change in lighting is used sparingly, too, but effectively so. In moments where danger heightens for Dolor and those she loves, the bluish light flashes to red, such as when Dolor narrates a stabbing, a military knife, and the harried act of washing blood away.
Recognizable Nightmares: The Figure of “Ninong”
In truth, the play begins not so much in the midst of the action, but near its retaliation. The premise is made more complex by the fact that the story unfolds in anything but chronological order, in a monologue smoothly delivered by __ Dolor. As a result, it becomes the critical duty of the audience to uncover the tragic pieces of her life.
Alongside the notion of tragedy, the figure of the padrino is easily recognizable, for as Dolor tells both her unseen child and the audience, she and Eman met at a local dance, the two of them having come from different barrios. Their resulting marriage, more importantly, as well as any vision they might have had of future prosperity, had been tied to a man called only by “Ninong.” Dolor, more importantly, understands the function of ninong and says it as simple fact of life: that figures such as he sponsor town weddings and other such communal events to endear himself to the people, who otherwise would not be able to afford such milestones.
Notably, out of all the unseen characters—Dolor’s child, her husband Eman, the two policemen who follow Dolor home one night, the lawyer at the municipality, the soldiers who tease her child, the men who use Dolor’s body—it is Ninong who casts the longest, darkest, but also most ambivalent shadow. He seems auspicious and generous because he blesses the marriage of Eman and Dolor; he even appears as their source of salvation because he offers their little family a lucrative opportunity that selling danggit while injured (Eman) or meantime whoring (Dolor) would never be able to give them.
The plan offered by Ninong is simple, and therefore all the more inviting: pretend to be a member of the New People’s Army, but even better! Eman must pretend that he now surrenders, that he is now to be obedient civilian to both President and nation. Such a simple plan, of course, merits some complex maneuvering. Eman must not only present himself to the President and the public, he must also make sure to attend rehearsals. He must know what to say, how to act, else the President will lose face. Finally, and perhaps the most important in this meta-script, however, is the surrender of a gun, for only in such a physical surrender can the scripted act cross into what will pass as concrete reality. More significantly, it is here, at the revelation of this plan, the multi-dimensionality of Dolor perhaps best begins to reveal itself.
Justice, the Impossible Dream
Notably, Dolor is complex because she evokes different emotions and yet remains understandable even in her stubbornness. Indeed, she is only trying to survive, and her simplicity, her willingness to participate in the plan to portray her husband as reformed member of the NPA, while never argued as morally right, nonetheless appears as understandable because it is the only way out. Its implicit promise seems to be that if one is poor but quiet and obedient to the power that does what it does with no need to explain itself, then the same poor will survive unscathed, and will even be given temporary prosperity as reward.
Thus, Dolor’s figure at once evokes empathy from the audience as much as it inspires amusement, the latter made possible because the form of the production’s script—a monologue—requires Dolor not merely to tell a story, but in fact to serve a purpose that a dialogue would otherwise have done. For example, Dolor’s utterances do not serve only to tell her life story thus far from A to B—rather, in a manner which encourages readers to wonder whether she has lost her mind or not, Dolor is narrator and ensemble of characters both.
One must not forget, too, that in the entirety of this monologue which encompasses the production, the audience is made to actively fill in the blanks that the monologue only gestures toward. In this sense Wala Nang Bata Dito’s monologue is multi-faceted—it is revelatory both of Dolor’s tendencies as well as of the other characters that she reacts to, even when these other characters have no physical presence onstage.
It should also be noted that Dolor strikes one as a tremendous character, for she embodies the question that will refuse dismissal for as long as one lives and breathes in this country. From telling her daughter that she shouldn’t be ashamed of a mother who must sell her body in exchange for food, the crescendo of Dolor’s frustration eventually rises to a heart-rending cry—“Bakit ba ang mahal-mahal ng hustisya?”
Interestingly, it is this heartbreaking question which audiences cannot answer; for while they are made to fill in the blanks of the plot, this act of putting the narrative’s parts together does not constitute an invitation to justify the violence that tears Dolor’s family apart.
Poverty as Slim Pickings
Does the audience play a role in Dolor’s oppression? The affirmative answer, admittedly, is tangential at best, and yet it exists all the same. When Dolor bemoans the difficulty of asking for help from the municipal lawyer, she says that his language is impossible for her to understand. The difficulty is proven in her mispronunciation of discernment, a rejection of the so-called aesthetics of legal language. Eventually, Dolor is able to learn the word’s meaning, which then allows her to teach her daughter that it is the process of learning right from wrong.
Discerning right from wrong—but in the lives of Dolor and her family, what question, what discernment would the audience have the right to require of them? Poverty and state oppression come hand-in-hand, and thus demand a different category of choices altogether. There is no right nor wrong. There is only survival.
Precisely, too, because Saysay’s work is cohesive, at the point when Dolor reaches her boiling point, it is undeniable that her anguish requires not merely fellow-feeling but empathic rage. The work, it bears emphasizing, is only able to effect such emotion because it denies audiences the opportunity of being spoon-fed Dolor’s narrative. After all, hers must remain a difficult story to swallow, such that every piece that falls into place, every part of the monologue that reveals how she came to her sorry state of affairs, functions not just to help the audience understand. Rather, since every nugget of Dolor’s story is hard-won by the audience who struggles to keep up with her monologue, at the end of the work there is a temporary illusion that they too, have become one with Dolor, so closely have they had to piece her life together.
But perhaps there is one other thing, one other option that remains for poor Dolor: the one that, as usual, the world turns a blind eye to. Retaliation. Revenge. Refusal. When Dolor stands on the table and begins to undress; when the unseen soldiers rap at her door, demanding for her child; when Dolor raises the gun Ninong had once asked her husband to “surrender”—at this point Dolor is no longer mother, wife, or whore. In this pivotal moment, she points her gun at the unseen intruders and tells them, “Wala nang bata dito!” and then fires her shot.
A Nation’s Coming of Age
This titular line is momentous for as the culmination confirms, the child has long perished. For a longer time than audiences can imagine, in fact, there has been no child to send to some vague, bright future. For the child is not the daughter of Eman and Dolor but the cloying naivete, the unshakeable, desperate hope held onto by the poor; it is the dream that maybe—just maybe!—this time around they will get their reward. Finally, survival. Finally, a peaceful life. But such are empty promises in a fascist state, and Dolor has long woken up from that dream. And who is to say when, in her short, tragic life, that awakening happened?
And soon, too, perhaps, the nation will shed its own naivete. But how and when and how—these questions are left for the audience to answer. What matters is that Wala Nang Bata Dito has achieved the delicate possibility of captivating its audience not only by implying that oppressive regimes give birth to ever-difficult questions for varying social classes, but also by insisting that members of the audience, in their union with Dolor by the end of the play, possess an instrument for ending such regimes as well. That such a union is illusory, ironically, does nothing to dampen its effect. As a matter of fact, its illusory—and thus temporary—nature only makes it more urgent to move from feeling to action.
As to what action that might be, exactly, is of course left open to the audience, for the triumph of Saysay’s work is that it finally departs from the breathless monologue which had for so long served as its form. As the signal of this departure, the sound of Dolor’s shot signifies not just the synthesis of her narrative but rather the eventual, hopeful invitation for members of the audience to begin a dialogue not merely with each other, but with members of different social classes: that is to say, with the varying faces of Dolor, Eman, and their children, as they lie in wait for justice to be served.
It is the departure that captivates us, and will not let go.
Andrea Macalino is a fictionist and teacher.