Cultural caregiver, theater pioneer and climate justice advocate Cecile Guidote-Alvarez recently went to New York as one of the honorees at the Remake-A-World Gala given by the La MaMa Experimental Theater. She is the only Filipino and Southeast Asian among seven awardees to get recognition as global citizen and transformational theater leader.
The event was originally scheduled in May but was postponed to Nov. 10. When she celebrated her 79th birthday on Nov. 13, also at La MaMa Theater, she had visitors whose lives she helped change because of theater.
One was Potri Ranka Manis, founding artistic director of New York-based dance theater Kinding Sindaw Melayu Heritage. She described Guidote-Alvarez as a “trailblazer, the era maker, the mother courage and more than words cannot capture.”Borocot origins
Manis met Guidote-Alvarez when she was barely a teenager from Borocot village, Maguing town, Lanao del Sur in Mindanao. In the early 1970s, Guidote-Alvarez, as founding artistic director of the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta), conducted workshops in the provinces in cooperation with the propeasant, nongovernmental organization Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement.
One of those workshops took place in Davao City, where Manis was one of the participants. “I first met Cecile when I was 12 years old, while she was giving a theater arts workshop to farmers whose farmlands were taken over by multinational agribusiness corporations,” Manis said. “Since then, the influence of that workshop has been a mainstay in the dance theater production of Kinding Sindaw, asserting the voice of indigenous people of Southern Philippines.” At the time, Guidote-Alvarez also campaigned for a UN Declaration for Indigenous Peoples.
Manis described Peta as having “energized the urban poor, the farmers, defending freedom and democracy through creative means. People were equipped with the power of the arts to promote sustainable governance and pave a way to break the cycle of poverty.” When Manis migrated to the US and worked as a nurse, she never forgot her theater background, and formed Kinding Sindaw in 1992 in New York City. At the time, Guidote-Alvarez had returned to the Philippines from exile together with her family.
Over the years, Manis and Kinding Sindaw performed at La MaMa. Coincidentally, it was where Guidote-Alvarez sought refuge in the 1970s with her husband, environmentalist and freedom fighter Heherson, as political exiles.
“Ellen Stewart has a very astute intuition of connecting the drumming heartbeats of artists who align for love of freedom, justice and democracy,” Manis added, referring to the founder of La MaMa.
Founded in 1961, La MaMa is the only original Off-Off-Broadway venue still in operation. Stewart died in 2011 at the age of 91 and is remembered as an Off-Off-Broadway pioneer.
Its sterling list of alumni includes Diane Lane, Bette Midler, Sam Shepard, Philip Glass, Harvey Feirstein and the Blue Man Group, among others. Guidote-Alvarez said among La MaMa’s sterling legacies was being the first venue for Tom O. Hogan’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair.” “They were given birth to at La MaMa before moving on to Broadway,” she said.
Manis continued: “Cecile often referred to La MaMa as a refugee center in which artists sought sanctuary from the stressors of socio-political conflicts. These were tumultuous times when living in the Philippines was not conducive to politically assertive leaders.
“While serving as Third World Committee of the International Theater Institute secretary in exile, Cecile got the idea to build a theater that became invaluable in highlighting the rich heritage of Asia, Africa and Latin America and advancing the cultural rights of ethnic minorities. With Ellen Stewart, Cecile founded Twitas or the Third World Institute of Theater Arts Studies.”
As director of Twitas and chairperson of the International Theater League of Folk Arts for Communication and Education, Guidote-Alvarez initiated cultural programs for UN’s dedicated years for population, women, habitat, youth, children, communications, technology, indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities.
In her years in New York as exile, she acted in La MaMa’s landmark plays like “Jilsa” directed by Duk Hyung Yoo of the Seoul Institute of the Arts, Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle” directed by Fritz Bennewitz of the Berliner Ensemble, and “Juana La Loca” by Miguel Sabido of Mexico. She directed a Third World version of the Ramayana and the Theatrical Liturgy for the Rights of the Child, which was reviewed by Robert Patrick of The Villagers as a “masterwork of a woman master artist.”
Guidote-Alvarez also taught community theater for Filipinos in diaspora and garnered for Philippine Educational Theater Arts League (Petal) Ensemble an outstanding political theater award together with the famous Bread and Puppet Theater. Petal is an extension of Peta based in New York to serve Filipinos in diaspora.
Manis expounded on Guidote-Alvarez as an “indomitable force of nature who truly embodies the power of the arts and still relentlessly serves the people through cultural education.”Manis’ testimonial was read in celebration of Guidote-Alvarez’s 79th birthday.
Mia Yoo, artistic director of La MaMa, in the same occasion described Guidote-Alvarez as someone she looked up to as a guiding light. “I’ve said time and time again, she paved the way for us in La MaMa. In our work to a more just world, that art can be a powerful tool to help us grapple with the issues of our time.
“She is a revolutionary in her work with human rights and global ecology and cultural caregiving for vulnerable groups. Her initiatives still continue to this day and are just as relevant if not more at this time.” —Contributed INQ