Cordillera Day and the indigenous people’s theater


Theater, in Philippine history, especially in times of political turbulence, has become a potent medium to express harsh realities such as oppression and exploitation, and to prescribe possible solutions and alternatives as the people’s response. Theater encapsulates situations of an individual or group of people needing resolutions, and the stage becomes a venue of artistic expression of a people in conflict with external forces and their clamor to change their condition. More importantly, theater connects actors to the audience more intimately and the interaction is immediate and visible.

The spirit of the 33rd Cordillera Day celebration last April 24, 2017 in the sitio of Bolo, Barangay Balantoy in Balbalan, Kalinga, was so palpable and vivid through the people’s theater. The clarity of purpose in using the community space as the arena to mirror the socio-political and economic realities of the indigenous people from different provinces in the Cordillera was not lost on the almost three thousand delegates who watched in rapt attention. With the general theme of “Cordillera Peoples’ Struggle for Self-Determination and Just Peace” embodied and integrated into the much awaited, yearly updated “Siak ni Kaigorotan” (I am Kaigorotan), the thousands of delegates watched the Cordillera situation unfold.

It was a time of renewing solidarity with Kaigorotan, the character; of the audience identifying with the struggle of Kaigorotan. Aesthetically, it was fascinating and stimulating to watch Kaigorotan, the indigenous individual, evolve into a collective. The phrase “Datayo ni Kaigorotan…” was the coming together of the umili, the merging of strength and grace executed as powerful blows against the onus of the three basic ills (imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism and feudalism) plus the particular scourge of national oppression. This sent a clear message: Kaigorotan as a community is now more empowered and resolute, with a consciousness inclusive not only of the indigenous peoples but all advocates and allies in the struggle against the enemy.

Ordinary people turned actors, combined with cultural workers honed in theatrical and musical skills by the Dap-ayan ti Kultura ti Kordilyera proved that the people’s theater is very much alive in the Cordillera. The amateurs, given barely a month to rehearse their lines and blocking, gave memorable performances, (notwithstanding the technical limitation of a sound system and pelting rain competing with voice projection) and even compelled the audience to watch more intently, for nuances.

The audience watched ilis talk about their woes, of alarming changes in their lives arising from the dangers brought by destructive projects and the consequent harassment from government forces. The delegates from Apayao boldly presented “Historical Government Neglect and Marginalization of Indigenous Peoples.”

The Ifugao delegates illustrated the impact of development projects such as Dams and Energy and portrayed state bias for monopoly capitalists while suppressing people’s resistance. “Mining Plunder of Ancestral Lands” committed by the comprador class with able assistance and collusion of the Philippine government was defiantly exposed by the Benguet delegates.

Thought- provoking and daring was the Mountain Province delegation’s enactment of “Militarization and Peace Zone.” With a cast of mostly children, “Just Peace and Continuation of the Peace Talks” by the Baguio Delegates was highly agitative and creative.

Lament and fury were still evoked after many years as the Abra delegates acted out the “Lessons from the Resistance against the Cellophil Resources Corporation.” Because the issue triggered the birth of a people’s movement and embodies the present call, “Lessons from the Anti-Chico Dam Struggle and Militant Tradition in Defense of Land, Life and Resources” by the host Kalinga delegates succinctly served as a reminder that commemorating Cordillera Day is an affirmation to pursue the struggle of the fallen heroes.

What made all presentations remarkable and successful was the fact that the continuing struggle was being enacted by the people themselves. Notable is the the age bracket of the actors. Children as young as eight years old, to young adults in their mid-20s rendered credible performances as typical villagers of a community, evoking empathy from the audience, agitating the crowd with their convincing portrayal of awakened and militant community members. Guided by a script, improvisation came so naturally and spontaneously because the performers were acting out their actual condition, that artistic license wasn’t even necessary to call for Fetad to end the injustices. Because theater is a reflection and projection of their real life situation as individuals and as communities, the actors, representing their communities’ sentiments (i.e. indignance, repulsion to oppression and exploitation) authentically portrayed their inner struggles and collective aspirations amid the issues confronting their communities.

Theater mirrors life. On that improvised theatre stage that serves as sitio Bolo’s communal ground, communities facing threats of imperialist plunder of their vast resources found expression in songs that were products of the historic struggle against the Chico and Cellophil projects.

The cadence of the salidummays was soothing as it was compelling. The synchronicity of body movements defined the conflict between the aggressors and the protagonists in this ongoing war. The surging dance movement as if poised for war, is the collective advance of an indigenous people long ignored and disrespected by the state, and indeed, ever vigilant to parry the blows of development aggression. The rhythm of the gongs energized and concluded every performance, as if declaring that “yes, in the struggle, everybody, young and old, man or woman, must be nataraki.”

As it has been a way of life, defending the ancestral domain from plunder has become second nature to the politically awakened Cordillerans. Internalizing the issues wasn’t a problem and even among the young actors, executing the situation dramatically seemed effortless, because it is their elders’ daily life, which they learn, which they must emulate. The tradition of resistance and militancy is reiterated in the almost repetitive theme of oppression and people’s awakening and uprising.

Looking at the community elders as they watched the performances, their eyes had that glint of approval, as they were assured that it was not just a show nor a presentation. The next generation is nurturing the culture, is learning the issues well and their performance was a pledge to carry on what the elders had begun. A core of cultural activists at the local level will creatively banner the people’s aspirations.

The community identifies with the character of Kaigorotan. “Siak” has become “Datayo” ni Kaigorotan. The individual’s journey has become a community’s Struggle for Self-Determination. The call is for involvement of all indigenous people in the Defense of Land, Life and Honor. The people’s theater is inviting each and every one to perform this courageous task beyond the stage. #


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