River, River written and performed by Merlinda Bobis UBC Telus Studio Theatre, October 25, 2013. The play River, River, written and performed by Merlinda Bobis, is painful to watch and listen to. The story is set in Bikol, circa 1987, when the Philippine government unleashed its Total War policy, a counter-insurgency operation designed to crush a national rebellion but which led to widespread killings, dislocations and suffering. Developed with US expertise, the Total War policy is also known as “limited intensity conflict” (LIC) and “winning hearts and minds”, and in the mid-80s under the regimes of Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos, the military called it Operation Plan Lambat Bitag (OPLAN Net-Trap).
Succeeding Philippine governments (including the current one) all made the same promise to crush the revolutionary movement within their presidential terms, through the continuation of counter-insurgency operations under different names, in utter disregard of lives lost, villages dislocated and communities left wailing for their dead and disappeared. All of these administrations have failed and the rebellion continued to grow.
Merlinda Bobis, Bikolana and Australyana, converses, chants, sings and dances gracefully on the raised platform and tells her story. She becomes Estrella Capili, the woman with the 12-metre hair in the village of Iraya, she who drags the corpses using her hair as a net, from the water to the riverbank. The river is the dumping ground of the victims of summary executions, also known as extrajudicial killings. The river changes its moods and its flavours for each time a body is thrown into its bosom, the water changes flavours from its river sweetness, into brine, then to lemon grass.
Merlinda sings of lament, of love and of loss. In her deep, full-throated voice, she sings the particular rhythm of the pasyon, the traditional chant of the Passion of Christ ing the Lenten season in many barrios. At one part in the play, she sits on the floor and pounds the lemon grass in her stone mortar and with each stab of the pestle, intones the names of the dead as if in prayer. (with this lump in my throat, I follow the prayer in my head by naming the people I knew.) Later at the Q & A, she reveals that one of the people she names is that of a woman from her own province, a victim of the counter-insurgency operation. This was echoed by her classmates from Bikol who were among the audience, her kababayan who have not seen her in decades.
Estrella, the Fish-Hair woman, not only manages to drag the corpses from the river, but also draws the audience to her, from wherever their memories resided and from wherever their hearts were hurt. After the play, a man in the audience from Chile, declares that this was a story of Chile under the repressive regime. River, River is a story of repression and of survival and resistance, and of love. Yes, the story could have been Mindoro, Samar, Mindanao, Chile under Pinochet, Argentina, Guatemala, Syria, the list goes on.
The military’s counter-insurgency called Lambat Bitag strikes a resonant chord with Merlinda’s Fish-Hair Woman. The military sees the countryside as one big sea swimming with guerillas; and to eliminate the guerillas the military casts their nets to snare their big fish, in cruel disregard of civilians caught in the crossfire. Dead civilians, including children, are dismissed as collateral damage, sympathizers, and supporters. With eyes on Merlinda/Estrella, one forgets there is only one person on the stage because there are many voices that speak and urge to be heard, many characters that weave in and out, and layers of stories that are told.
It is a play that reminds us to remember, to keep alive the memory by telling the story, by naming the victims and the perpetrators. Merlinda says it much better with these words: “To keep a place alive in your heart, it must dwell in your mouth.”
Merlinda Bobis was in Vancouver as a visiting UBC scholar, a visit made possible by the Institute of Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice @ the UBC Research Network “Rethinking Responses and Responsibilities in River Regions.” The community partners were the Canada-Philippine Solidarity for Human Rights (CPSHR), Migrante BC and the Philippine Artists Network for Community Integrative Transformation (PANCIT).
Merlinda is a writer, a dancer, and a teacher. Born in Albay, she completed her B.A. (Summa cum laude) at Aquinas University in Legazpi City, her Master of Arts in Literature (Meritissimus) from the University of Sto.Thomas and her Doctorate of Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong, where she teaches creative writing. She has received many and various awards for her poetry and her stories. Her plays have been produced and performed on stage and radio in Australia, the Philippines, Spain, USA, Canada, France, China, Thailand and the Slovak Republic.
If you missed the performance which was packed, make sure to check out her books from your local library or better still, buy yourself a copy at the UBC Bookstore. ###
By Tinig Migrante