It was the critical year of 1984, one year after the assassination of former Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. The protest movement had become radicalized. The cultural front was alive and well. There were demonstrations, strikes and street theater; a lot of plays bristled with red flags and subversive slogans.
Among these groups was young playwright-director Chris B. Millado, a member of Peryante and Kalinangan Ensemble of Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta).
“I experienced community groups,” he recalled in a recent interview. “I was busy directing for Peta and also writing many plays, mostly short, some in collaboration.”
Coming home from a demo, Millado and his sister Cecilia, a student of Philippine High School for the Arts, were arrested at a checkpoint; they were handcuffed, brought to a safe house, interrogated and roughed up. They were later released, in a twist of fate or simply one of those anecdotes that cropped up occasionally during the martial law period.
The two were set free because their mother played mahjong with Gen. Tomas Caringal, then head of the Philippine National Police. Nevertheless, it was a traumatic experience for Millado, and perhaps even more so for his sister, who was younger and more vulnerable. And whenever a military vehicle passed by during those days, he would feel “numbed.”
‘Buwan at Baril’
That year of 1984, the first of his many full-length plays, and the best known, “Buwan at Baril,” was staged by Peta at Raha Sulayman Theater in Fort Santiago, Manila. (It was later restaged in 2017 at Bantayog ng mga Bayani Center in Quezon City.)
Intense and often told in long monologues, with its acting challenges for the leads, the play focuses on three women who could be called representatives of that tumultuous era: the wife of a slain New People’s Army leader, seeking the remains of her husband (CB Garrucho, later Cherrie Pie Picache in the 2017 production); a socialite radicalized by her participation in the martial law demonstrations; (Ditchay Roxas, then Jackie Lou Blanco); and an Itawis woman, narrating the ordeals suffered by her tribe (Connie Lauigan-Chua, who was actually fluent in the Itawis language).
Angeli Bayani appeared as the Itawis woman in the second production, and her narrative was translated by an actor playing a priest (JC Santos).
Another key character was the police interrogator, played by Joel Lamangan in the original production and by Joel Saracho in the second staging. This interrogator used to be an activist.
“They were all based on actual characters I met in the street performances,” recalled the playwright. “I wanted to give a voice to those participating in the movement. They were micro characters, not characters shouting slogans. I wanted to show the cost of participating in the people’s movement. Even the interrogator who was a former activist was based on a real person.”
Two years later, in February 1986, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. fled the country and Corazon Aquino took over as president.
That year, Millado joined the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) under Ma. Teresa Escoda Roxas and Nicanor G. Tiongson. It was only a brief stint, lasting about a year. He did outreach work, reaching out to those in the regions. For a time he was also involved with Tanghalang Pilipino, the new resident theater group headed by Nonon Padilla.
Then came an opportunity to travel to the United States and work with Filipino American theater groups. He wrote a lot of plays mostly dealing with the Filipino diaspora staged by the Fil-Am groups.
But the CCP was not through with him yet. In 2003, CCP president Nestor Jardin asked him to join as associate artistic director and help develop the performing arts department, as it was then known. Ten years later, under Raul Sunico, Millado became artistic director; finally in 2014, he became vice president and artistic director of the CCP.
The irony was not lost on the activist director-playwright. As a student talking up theater arts at the University of the Philippines Diliman, he had joined demonstrations against the CCP; it was a political statement. Now he was a top official of the premier cultural institution.
“It was a big change,” he declared. “It was a big learning experience. Now there was a budget, resources, broader ranks, an opportunity to reach out to people’s artists, especially those in the regions, to expand their roles.”
An advocate of artistic freedom, he had to face the press during controversies like the “kulo” exhibit of artist Mideo Cruz, which Catholics found blasphemous and mounted demos against the CCP. More recent was the sprawling environmental exhibit of Jinggoy Buensuceso in front of the CCP, with bulol swathed all over, first with red and then with pink.
Changing of the guard
Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will become president come June 30. For Millado, now 61, it is time to retire from government service after 20 years at the CCP. During his years at the CCP he helped in its decentralization thrust, reaching out to the regions. He also “made bigger” the CCP’s successful projects like the Pasinaya (free staging of excerpts of shows), the choral festival, the archives and the Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, edited by Tiongson, which became a bestseller.
During 17 years under the Marcos regime, the outgoing official said, “A certain sector of the arts benefited and the CCP produced original works. I hope that they (the new dispensation) will continue to respect the freedom of artists, and that the CCP will continue to come up with original works.” —CONTRIBUTED