It was 1977, the height of martial law. At the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, the UP Repertory Company was presenting “Pagsambang Bayan,” a play by Bonifacio Ilagan, directed by Behn Cervantes. The production was sponsored by the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, because the main action revolved around a Christian liturgical Mass.
Agents of the law were discreetly watching the show. It was not going to be a conventional Mass or Sunday service, although the priest (at one time played by actor Orestes Ojeda) was as traditional as the vestments he wore. The congregation was composed of workers, peasants, urban poor, indigenous peoples and professionals.
It turned out to be a discussion on the national situation, as the congregation would ask questions and argue with the priest. When the celebrant would quote biblical passages about, say, man having dominion over the birds and the fishes, a young worker would stand up and declare, “inaapi kami” (we are being exploited).
There were allusions to martial law, and the play opened with images of the dictator.
At the end, the priest undergoes a metamorphosis— he discards his priestly vestments and dons the attire of a farmer. In effect, he has become one with the people.
After the run of the show, Cervantes was rearrested. Also detained was the musical director Susan Tagle. As for Ilagan, he had just been released from prison the year before and he celebrated his freedom by writing the play in 1977.
And now the good news is that “Pagsambang Bayan” is back, this time as a (mostly) sung-through musical with 25 songs by composers Jed Balsamo and Lucien Letaba, under Joel Lamangan’s direction.
The producer this time is Ilagan’s own Tag-ani Performing Arts Society. Operatic tenor Dondi Ong is the priest-celebrant, with rocker Cabring Cabrera as alternate.
“We have retained the allusions to martial law,” says the playwright. “Much has remained the same. But we now have critiques of the Marcos burial, extrajudicial killings, the comeback of the Marcoses and the threat of martial law under the Duterte administration.”
Ilagan adds: “Essentially, the play encourages the audience to look back at the past and how it impacts on the present.”
Lamangan, another ex-detainee, saw the original production and he says “it was too powerful for me … Now we’ve made it contemporary, we made it a musical to give it another color, to make it appeal to other sectors. I feel this should be shown to audiences so they’ll know martial law.”
“Pagsambang Bayan” will be shown for three weekends (Fridays-Saturdays, 7 p.m.) at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in Santa Mesa, Manila, starting on Aug. 4 and then at the Tanghalang Aurelio V. Tolentino of the Cultural Center of the Philippines on Oct. 22-23, 7 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees. —CONTRIBUTED