Be Bold, Be Seditious (an open letter)

Pilipino Cultural Nights are not literal but lateral truths, acts of performative surrogation, the sideways substitution of a student body into time’s breach.
— Theodore Gonzalves - The Day the Dancers Stayed

This open letter of support for performers of Stanford Kayumanggi's PCN was originally published May 6, 2017. I ended up liking what I wrote and thought I'd archive it here.

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Dearest friends,

It's the day of PCN! (With the utmost bias - the best day of the PASU calendar.) I hope y'all are rested as you can be and ready for the day. Can't be there for a pre-show prayer/community circle, so I wanted to offer a few words before the performance.

With some of you, I've personally shared the stage, whirling through clapping bamboo sticks, deftly maneuvering our feet as 5&a 6&a 7&a 8!'s transformed into final roars of thunderous applause. Others, I've had the distinct pleasure of teaching dances over the years -- Maria Clara, Tribal/Lumad, Kordilyera, Moro, Rural. Others, I’ve directed and cowritten with. Of course, I've had the highest privilege of having some of you as close collaborators, cochairs and interns. Together, we've created this magical production we call Pilipino Culture Night every single spring.

As you perform, remember why we dance. Remember the revolutionary history of PCN. On August 13, 1898, Spain and the US decided to have mock battle in Manila Bay. Spain was losing the war and was working with a decrepit fleet; the US wanted to put on a show for the Filipinos so that we would be indebted to our new American masters for the "gift of regime change," instead of simply giving us our freedom from Spain. 1898-1902, we fought tirelessly against the US, our new oppressor, against 'benevolent assimilation'; they called it the Philippine Insurrection, we knew it was the Philippine-American War. And although it only officially lasted five years, guerrilla warfare and rebellion continued to be waged (and still does) in the hills, forests, and villages. When the war ended, a period of Americanization began -- and where the vital role of playwrights began.

Unable to fight in the open, we rebelled through art. [...] Our plays were labeled as ‘seditious, a call to arms.’

Unable to fight in the open, we rebelled through art. "Playwrights, actors, stagehands, and audience members risked arrest, imprisonment, and fines by working on and attending the plays. U.S. colonial officials often sat clueless through several productions as plays that seemed to be about innocuous romances or featured characters with curious names conveyed alternative meanings to local audiences." Our playwrights waged guerrilla warfare through narratives and storytelling. We celebrated our heroes: Andres Bonifacio, Jose Rizal, the Katipunan (KKK), Gabriela Silang, and the thousands of revolutionaries that fought against Spain and the US. While imperialism pretended to give us autonomy, protection, and 'education', we wrote stories about the truth. Flagrant violations of Act 292, the Sedition Act, our plays were labeled as "seditious", a call to arms. With Manila Bay, our revolutionaries were relegated to spectators between two 'masters of imperial theater.' The next quote still haunts me: "Taking the conflict simultaneously underground yet in full view of a public, seditious playwrights eschewed escapist entertainment, regional tastes, and religious plays that celebrated Christian conversion. Rather, they created the first national performance repertoire to signal that the struggle was not over, to imagine an audience gathered for an evening as members of a fully sovereign nation."

Our plays are not our only tools. The dances we do were born out of a Philippine response to Americanization. As America imposed its educational system on us, we fought to cling to our culture. We thought that, somehow, if we institutionalized our own heritage into the educational system, we could fight off the cultural erasure that Americans were bringing. Ethnographers integrated with the people all over the archipelago, researching our dances, building a national repertoire of movements that could be integrated into physical education classes, workshops, and seminars. Of course, translating and compartmentalizing the myriad of dances meant for rituals, celebrations, worship, expression into five 'suites' is a theatrical appropriation of our own culture. The problematic nature of modifying traditional dances for consumption on a stage is still a paradox we deal with today. Regardless, the message is clear. Our dances are important. They are us. Some are our grand-grand-grand parents' legacy. Some are still a living part of several indigenous communities' culture. They represent the dizzying abundance of stories and traditions that are a part of our culture and ancestry.

Through intimidation, miseducation, and fear, the goal of colonizers and oppressors is erasure; our antidote is storytelling.

My friends, we are part of a revolutionary legacy. Even today, we are still fighting a struggle to tell the stories of our people, of our identities, of our experiences, of our lives, in a world that deems our brown skin not worthy of being beautiful, our data not worthy to dis-aggregate, our indigenous people not worthy to recognize, our fertile lands not worthy to respect, our workers not worthy to be able to work in their own country, our stories not worthy to be told.

We dance because we're fighting. We act because we are yelling. We sing because we are celebrating. We put on this show because we are telling the world: we are here. We are telling the world: we matter.

Through intimidation, miseducation, and fear, the goal of colonizers and oppressors is erasure; our antidote is storytelling. We will never be erased or silenced. This show, along with all the other shows, will continue to go on.

As you perform, I invite you to listen to the exquisite rhythms of life that wind their way through the instruments of our people. Free yourself of form and transform between human, tree, hawk, seabird, water, and wind. Be the gusting of the tropic breezes that make the coconut forests shiver. Plant your feet on the ground and let flow through you the energy and spirit of the tribes, cultures and peoples you have the privilege of embodying and representing. Forget that you are at Stanford. Let yourself be transported to a timeless, location-less place, where everything simply... exists. Be a voice for the voiceless.

And have FUN! Smile, laugh, cry, and feel every emotion in between.

For those who are performing for the first time, cherish this introduction to what will not just be a production for this year, but for many more. For veterans, remember what it was like to be scared or nervous; comfort and support the ones around you. For my soon to be graduates, think fondly of your time on stage - it is a magical place, and one not easily replicated as you move on from here. The word for PASU this year was kapwa – “togetherness,” roughly. This has been a show a year in the making; help each other; love each other; celebrate each other. The experience of production is an intoxicating, unparalleled one. The bonds and memories made here are ones that last a lifetime. The perils and pitfalls of a stage are many, but none too severe that can't be fixed with some improvisation, laughter, hugs, grit, or copious amounts of duct tape. 

For the first time in eight years, I won't be there for PCN. And though it hurts deeply, I'll still be on that stage with you, from our national anthems to the final curtain call. After all, PCN was never a show about individuals. From the moment we learned our first Tinikling regular, we became connected to something far beyond us. Through bayanihan, we're all in this together - with ourselves, but also with those who told stories before us, and with those whose stories are yet to unfold. Collectively, we will continue to give the best damn performance of our lives.

I wish everyone the best on this PCN night. I have had the distinct, irreplaceable honor of being your cochair, kuya, friend, mentor, mentee. I’m glad to have spent many of my years by your sides, and it is a treasure that only appreciates in value with time. Accept this note as my rousing hug and call to action (K-A-Y-U, Kayu, Kayu, woo, wooohhh!)

May your feet be light, may your voices be clear, and may your hearts ever be aflame with the burning of our struggle.

Be bold, be seditious. 

With love,

Phil

Kayu Co-Chair 2016-2017, 2012-2013 | Kayu Intern 2009-2010


The historical information in this letter was largely sourced from Theodore Gonzalves' amazing book, The Day The Dancers Stayed (Amazon). Or check it out at your local library!

For other great PCN related writings that my friends have written, check out: Why Culture Shows Make Me Cry (Sammie Wills) | Celebration, Culture, Community (Hiroshi Ishii-Adajar)

Have any of you participated in a Pilipino Culture Night? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments or tweet me @phildelrosario!