unfinished legacies: bring the bells back to balangiga

GEOGRAPHY: 1901 Balangiga is a fishing town of thatched huts and beaches. It is one of the southernmost towns of Samar, one of the largest and most eastern islands of the Philippines.

THE RESIDENTS: Townsfolk are fresh from the leaving of the last Spanish Catholic frair, the last symbol of colonialism in their town. When the U.S. soliders landed, they were aware of President Emilio Aguinaldo's surrender to U.S. rule. Residents immediately recognized a new colonizer. They determined to fight back using wits - until a resident girl is raped.

THE AMERICANS: Battle-weary, homesick and ill soldiers sent by President William McKinley from war in Nanking, China and before that, Cuba, to filfill his Manifest Destiny ideal already executed against the Native Americans in the western U.S. For the Philippines, McKinley issued his Benevolent Assimilation proclamation for the soldiers to

THE BIG PICTURE: The Balangiga Massacre, or the Balangiga Affair, as it is known in the U.S., happened in during the Spanish American, and later, the Filipino American war. The massacre occured at the end of the former and contributed to the beginning of the latter.


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'bells of balangiga' 2006 performance, from left to right: ray, aiko (audience), gen. louie pascasio (director) and suyenn (townspeople)


Unfinished legacies
Bring the bells back to Balangiga

After 15 years of successful dramaturgy, longtime Filipino theater troupe Pintig Cultural Group had remounted the critically-acclaimed musical, "Bells of Balangiga: The Musical," written by Rodolpho Carlos Vera and directed by Louis Pascasio at the Light Opera Works in Evanston.

Using traditional Filipino dress, the endemic martial art arnis, live score at every show in April, Visayan dance and Filipino speech, Pintig aims to highlight a sophisticated people simply asking for their church bells back, taken at a time of war and colonization. In the process, they hope audiences will learn something of their history in the homeland and in the United States. The story is set in the town of Balangiga, in the island province of Samar, east central Philippines.

One song in the musical is sung in Filipino, "Pag-ibig at Digmaan," translated in the program as "Love and War."

A nation, whole
Proud of its integrity
Never again will it bow its head
Its heart is strong
And though the flames
Of another war engulf it
We know our love with bind us
As we struggle through

Pintig had closed performances Sunday, May 7. They have set time aside after every show for questions. In the April 30 show, a confused audience member asked, "What stand do you take - are you against the U.S., or against the Filipino townspeople?"

There is a line in the final montage, "Teach your children who have forgotten." Executive director and producer Levi Aliposa and the cast asserted that their role is to provoke enough questions and interest that someone in the audience would be willing to find out for themselves and others about the massacre - called the Balangiga Affair in the U.S. With her questions, Pintig has succeeded in their interest to provoke insights as well as entertain.

The stage, designed by Louie Sison, is decorated with wings and a simple arch turned doorway painted straw yellow with orange brush strokes to evoke painted stone, the side of the real St. Anthony Church in Balangiga. Overall the cast gave a rousing performance given that sometimes a sweeping operaticlike song would be accompanied by only a piano or a guitar.

The costumes of 1901 Samar, the island where the massacre occured, were convincing and colorful. Costume designer Susan Kirpach chose the typical Visayan dress of shortpants, a shirt and salakot, the traditional bamboo hat for the men. The women wore the traditional patadyong dress of a long skirt, kimona shirt with angel sleeves and panuelo, a large handkerchief wrapped around the head, shoulders or waist.

It is these, including a necklace, that the women lend to the men on the eve of their first battle with the U.S. soldiers. Esmeralda (Je Cacino) and Aling Tikay (Jennifer Ligaya Burton and Joanah Torre) sport striking red and black patterns respectively. Mayor "El Presidente" Pedro Abayan (Bert Matias) sometimes sported the traditional Barong Tagalog pina shirt.

The U.S. soldiers sported a simpler version of their 19th century counterparts with a blue long sleeved shirt tucked into khaki pants over black boots. To distinguish their leader, Capt. Thomas Connell (Richard Gordon) wore his blue shirt tucked out. This simple shadow to the real Army uniform was enough to convince they were soldiers of the
U.S. army.

Paolo Nicolasin, who played Esmeralda's sweetheart Domeng, said a light blew out during the gala performance, but the audience hardly noticed it. Light designers Amanda Clegg Lyon and Steve Weaver changed shades on cue and placed a pattern of leaves at one light, evoking Samar island's "howling wilderness," as Gen. Jake Smith called for it to be at the end of the U.S.' revenge.

Markings of the Franciscan Catholic order are depicted on the bells, two in FE Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and one at the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment base in Tongduchon, South Korea, where they remain today. The priest (Levi Aliposa), clad in a brown robe and rope, used twigs lashed together to a make a crucifix for a scene in the forest. This is great theater, as churches even then surely have portable crucifixes precisely for outdoor activities. But it's a great touch, to remind audiences of the poverty inflicted by Spain for over 300 years, matching the rice aspergillum to bless each of the residents who volunteered to fight the Americans in their town.

Kaikai Mascarenas' voice and prayerful expression is near perfect in a forest scene, with her cast as a young friend of Esmeralda's. Domeng's (Paolo Nicolasin) singing is effortless, as is the priest's (Aliposa) calling for protection from the Almighty. "Protect us from these evil vultures!" he cries. This musical is Richard Gordon's (Capt. Conwell) first theater venture, and he sings the captain's doubts reminiscent of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. The voices of townspeople Evelyn Masbaum and Angelica Atian soar above all others in "Have Mercy," a scene where Conwell announces a decision unfair to the villagers, and the "Ritual of Disguise," where the women dress the men in their clothes.

The scenes with Esmeralda (Je Cacnio) draw you in to listen to injustice done to a girl with big dreams. It was Cacnio's chance to bring herself to the stage. "I went to an all-girls' Catholic school in the Philippines. My teachers would force us to speak in nothing but English all day, and if we uttered a word of Filipino, they would punish us. That action was like raping me, in that I had to hide my own language at school," she said during a forum at the end of the April 30 show.

Aling Tikay (Jennifer Ligaya Burton) and soldier William Gibbs (Brian Desgranges) stole the show in the scenes where their characters take up the story. Aling Tikay was made younger than she seemed to be on paper, to great effect - to audiences she is the passionate, fearless aunt with the personalized religion, which every family has. Gibbs is one of the few survivors of the morning attack, waking up screaming to nightmares of hacking and body parts landing on food and villagers running in skirts, weilding sharp bolos.

"They're coming! They're coming!" and Gibbs utters the first of three cries in the play, the first being Esmeralda when she was raped. In Gibbs' dream, villagers surround him, pounding their arnis sticks on the ground, threatening. The light changes to an angry red. Gang rape by soldiers to Esmeralda was suggested by two soldiers positioned on either side, and one standing behind her. The light alternates between blue and heavy dark green. Her prolonged cry in the forest, at nighttime, alone, reminds audiences of the unique tears of a Filipina, and what waves it could induce.

The second cry comes from Pvt. Seetherly, who had too much of the island and started firing rifle shots at mosquites, ants and bugs. This is an attempt of the play to be fair to the U.S. side of the story. The soldiers had been away from their homes for almost two years at the time of their coming to Balangiga. They were not used to the weather, had not received mail for seven months since Nanking, and were getting sick because of the local water.

One audience member crowed, "Plays such as this make us and our children aware of important events in our history. Our struggles, victories, and quest for justice as a people should be made known to everyone."

They should be known because the Philippines is a country on a par with any other, and their history needs to be respected. The villagers understood the Americans to be new colonists, but the Americans did not understand the gravity of the villagers' relief when the Spanish left. Their leader Capt. Connell always found a way to justify his actions, even as he knew they were colonizers. The villagers then fought for their country. The U.S., thinking this a rebellion, exacted revenge - a revenge exacted too well by burning the entire island, one of the largest in the Philippines, and then taking the bells.

At magunaw man
Ng digmaan ang lahat
Pag-ibig natin
Ang babangon sa lusak
At silunin man
Ng digmaan ang bayan
Pag-ibig natin
Sa dilim ay tatanglaw.

At the end of the evening show on May 6, actors answered questions and suggested that perhaps aside the U.S. returning the bells, they also offer apology for the razing of the entire Samar island, killing 50,000 residents, some who probably had no knowledge of what Americans were doing on their island.

Balangiga is now a large municipality of 13 smaller barangays. The town plaza is surrounded by a playground, a stage, municipal buildings and city hall. Each September, residents and tourists gather around the plaza to participate in several days' festivities; the highlight is a reenactment by teenagers of the battle between their ancestors and the Americans. It is the town's largest tourist draw.

A basketball hoop stands in the middle of the plaza, prominent when it is empty. One wonders what effect the bells would have on a simple fishing town like this, should the bells be returned. To a near corner stands St. Anthony Church, squat and elegant, painted a creamy yellow, its belltower whistling in the wind, waiting.


this piece is scheduled to appear in the MAY issue of the fil-am community builder. if you are unaware of the paper, copies can be picked up at the unimart on clark street, and the paper's offices on 5232 N. Western Ave.; telephone 773-275-4540.
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