A few Sundays back, Ces Drilon and Ricky Carandang sat down for a chat with playwright Floy Quintos after a rehearsal of his acclaimed play, The Kundiman Party. In the conversation with the couple—old friends and admirers of his work—Quintos revealed how he was blown over by the tremendous reception to how he revived the Kundiman in this play about, among others, EJK and social media.
To those unfamiliar with the production, which stars Shamaine Centenera and Nonie Buencamino, the story revolves around a voice teacher—who has had a stellar career in world opera—and her ‘titas of Manila’ coterie who get dragged into a social media protest against the current administration. When people get intimidated and hurt, the ladies realize the gravity of what they got themselves into—when it only began as a series of YouTube videos with Adela (Centenera) and her student (played by Miah Canton) singing Kundiman, and Adela giving lectures recalling her past singing protest songs.
Asked by Carandang if his play would be considered seditious, Quintos says, “art cannot change anything... it reflects moments, it helps you process things, as a record of time, but it won't change people.” For audiences who come away recharged after watching The Kundiman Party, Quintos hopes that they leave with this thought: that it’s high time the middle class stop making gods and heroes of leaders who turn out to have feet of clay.
Ces Drilon: How did the idea for Kundiman Party come about?
Floy Quintos: I’ve always wanted to do a play about what's happening, basically the situation of the country and how artists respond to it. I was in the process of writing and sabi ko, how nice to really just go back and contrast our period and our way of resistance with Number one: EDSA. During that time, everything was so clear and there was a line in the plain, ang clear-clear ng struggle. Ngayon hindi na. And then it talks about how the whole war, the whole resistance has been elevated to social media, and how we need to find ways to respond differently to it.
But what I didn't expect was the way the people would react to the play and how they would find so many things. Nationalism, for example. Of course the nationalism theme was there, but more than anything—and this was totally unexpected—they were saying how grabe the way I used Kundiman, which is such an old art form, to mirror present concerns. Okay, I said, that was just a stop gap, that was just a little segment of acting. And I said when we were rehearsing, why not stretch it and stretch it and really approach all the possible issues and what Kundiman could say about them. True enough, “Nasaan Ka Irog” evokes EJK; “Mutya ng Pasig”—China.
Yung “Pilipinas Kong Mahal,” the one you saw a while ago, has already been rewritten and, who knows, in the coming days it may be rewritten some more. What we told the actors in the second run: be ready for anything because as things develop after the election, I'll just keep responding to it, and we will see what works, what doesn't, what strikes a chord, what doesn’t.
CD: So, originally the weaving of the kundiman was not how you envisioned it?
FQ: It was how I envisioned it. I didn't think it would strike that chord. Funny because Maestro Ryan (Cayabyab) was telling me when he watched it, he was so moved —‘You really just brought out the meaning of all these things.’ And I said ‘Oo nga. Siguro nga. Thank you.’ But it was not something I had really planned or expected the audience to react.
CD: There must be a yearning that you touched.
FQ: Maybe also, because the music - it's so patriotic, the words are so beautiful. And all I really wanted to do was create a difference between the way we protested before with the Kundiman, and the way we do it now na ang ingay-ingay, the difference in sensibility- the rah-rah-rah versus the beautiful poetry of it. And parang it struck a chord in this world that's full of noise.
CD: Or maybe it gave new meaning and relevance.
FQ: It gave new meaning to the songs. And it's so funny because the characters of Bobby and Antoinette, they really resonated with the millennials. There was this young boy who wrote a beautiful blog about the difference between Bobby and Antoinette—that Bobby is this rah-rah-rah kid and Antoinette is the one who says in order to achieve change, you have to work, you have to study, you have to be the best that you can be and that's a process. It doesn’t come easy. Ang galing nga eh, sometimes reading the blogs and their reactions, I was like, ‘Shit, ang bobo ko hindi ko nakita yun, bakit hindi ko nakikita yung nakikita nila?’
CD: Is it always like that for writers?
FQ: Sometimes yes but more so in Kundiman Party. The levels of meaning are different for each and every person, more so for this play. Last year, right after we closed, the whole cast was saying, let's put money into it. Let's do it again. But something was telling me it's not the time. It's done its work for this year. Late last year, mga November, PETA approached me and they said we want to co-produce Kundiman Party. I was like wait there are so many others: there’s Dekada '70, there's the whole Lualhati Bautista series which you can do. Why this? ‘No, we want this.’
Then PETA’s CB Garruco was saying, It just speaks to the middle class. And that's another thing we wanted to achieve in Kundiman Party. It speaks to a class of people that can do something, that can really push for change in a society where, admit it, the poor and the ones who are really disgruntled and the ones who are really affected won't do anything anymore. I don’t know, what do you think? Parang wala eh. What do you think?( Quintos turns the table and poses the question to Ricky Carandang)
Ricky Carandang: I think the poor are always resigned to suffering.
RC: And there is a learned helplessness.
RC: That has happened to them since the history of the country.
RC: Which is why what you see really is the reflection of the sensibilities of the middle and the upper class.
FQ: Yun na nga, and parang we are the ones who need to go out there for them to follow, parang ganun. I’m being armchair (activist) here ha. I’m being so armchair (activist.)
RC: But very clearly the sensibility of Kundiman Party, it’s the sensibility of the middle class.
FQ: It’s bourgeois. It’s from the middle class, unapologetically. It’s all my titas. It’s the Quintosian family, the way we talk, the way the actresses talk.
RC: And the way that most of the victims in the play are the helpers, the servants of the middle class and not the middle class themselves. (In the play, a kasambahay of Adela has a relation who succumbs to EJK). The play is about people sort of playing games and then finding themselves in a situation where it's no longer a game and there was a push back. Did you get any push back about the play? Was there any? Did you get death threats? Did people make you bastos?
FQ: No. You know why? Philippine theater is essentially woke. The people who go. I mean this is one thousands pesos, Sa UP cheaper pa, PhP 300. But people who go to PETA, the audience is woke na. The people who watch are all titas, the Alabang titas, the Makati titas, (former) Ombudsman Carpio-Morales. But we did get a lot of DDS who came out saying ‘You know what? Ang fair-fair niyo kasi pinakita niyo yung weakness ng side niyo. Pinakita niyo yung weakness ng dilawan. In UP, during the second and the third week, we had one audience na may hats ng mga Duterte. Sabi ko, Let them! Let them sit down. They paid! Then maya-maya, nagtatawanan na din sila. So when they came out, those were the guys who said 'Alam mo okay naman ito kasi pinakita mo ang kahinaan ng mga dilaw.’ So again it's filtered through that consciousness.
RC: I got a sense you were sort of mocking the upper class, the dilawan.
FQ: Yes but mocking lovingly, in a very loving way.
RC: If you watch the progression of the play it does come out lovingly, but in the moment when that’s happening, I sense, hmmmm, he’s kind of mocking them.
FC: There’s a saying in showbiz that you cannot—the word is not mock—you cannot make fun of something you do not love.
RC: For example the woman, the one with the hat, doing the merchandise.
FC: Tita Mich, she’s very woke. She’s the one who kisses Bobby.
RC: In the beginning I had a sense you were using her to mock the shallowness of the middle class, but then as the play goes on...
FC: She's a society woman, she knows how to make it work. And actually a lot of people would say, ‘Don't you know these people?’ ‘Meron ba talagang mga tita na ganyan?’ But it is such an Assumptionista thing: we don’t like it but wait, we have to do it, let's do it na. It's an old-school Assumption college, kolehiyala thing.
RC: But it's only when you watch the play throughout that you realize the mocking is a loving mocking.
FC: And also because I believe that it is these people who have the capacity in the end. If you watch the history of the three titas in the play, they begin like that, the silly geese. But when push comes to shove and when Bobby leaves them in the end, they realize we've been relying on other people, we’ve been relying on young politicians, we’ve been relying on saviors, knights in shining armor, we've been relying on these people too much. ‘Halika na, let's do this'. And its something I notice having them ten thousand Veladas of Assumption or STC. These titas they’re the flightiest things on earth but pag hora de peligro na --they all put down their hats. ‘Okay let’s do this.’ Isn’t that in a sense what the middle class now needs to do. I think we really need to commit. Let’s go, let’s commit.
CD: So kanina, I think it was Shamaine (Centenera, the lead actress) who said they were thinking there must be a way to take the play further by having a dialogue.
FC: Yes tama. I think you’re right. PETA has been wanting that. They said this is the kind of play that needs a talk back after the show. I said, Okay sige. Wag lang mapagod yung mga senyora. They’re no spring chickens. Now that it's being put that way, Okay, fine, I will take up the cudgels. Alam mo they are doing two shows a day, they’re not 18 ha, they’re not these 18 year-old girls.
CD: Pero hindi ka natatakot?
FC: Not really kasi nga it’s in the theatre, it's not television. My god, Mike de Leon has done far more dangerous work. He’s done Kangkungan. In a sense nga ang greatest fear ko sa play na ito is —echo chamber. But it’s an echo chamber that also asks a lot of questions. What is the purpose of the artist in society? How far can we take this? Can the young, can that generation and the millennials ever get their acts together? Kasi that's another thing eh. Really one of the things that made the play very charming is that bridging of social media and kundiman. ‘Wow, social media and Kundiman!’ You get reactions like that which is very touching for me. In total fairness, hindi ko inisip yun but thank you for seeing that. And it's good when a work of art does that, yung maraming levels and everything.
CD: And bringing in Nonie Buencamino.
FC: Teroy kasi is doingThe Dresser with Audie Gemora. Kalil Almonte, whom I write the Bobby role for has a very busy career in the corporate world. Si Nonie naman hatid lang ng hatid (kay Shamaine, his wife). So I said, ‘Nons, puwede ka ba?’ Sabi niya, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to ask!’ (laughter) Si Boo (Gabunada) naman was a bit apprehensive because his father nga.
CD: What’s the story there?
FC: It was so strange because..
CD: Puede yan on the record ha?
FC: Yes. Of course the Nic Gabunada thing came out.
RC: Why, he’s the son of Nic?
RC: He’s Nic’s son! Oh my God!
FC: So may layer siya. May layer siya.
CD: Concerned siya. Pinayagan ba siya ng tatay niya?
FC: Ayun nga, sabi ko, ‘Wait, you’re Nic’s son? Is this okay with you? Because I dont want you to get in trouble with your family, it’s not worth it. Not worth it. I can look for somebody else.' He said 'No, I wanna do it because ever since I saw it, I know it’s an important piece.’ Pakiusap lang niya, ‘Shield mo nalang ako sa press kasi I’m sure...’ I said, ‘We have to find a way to do that.’
RC: How the hell are you gonna shield him from the press? That’s almost impossible.
FC: Yun na nga eh. You’ll be surprised we had a press con in PETA, and only one person knew. And this was supposed to be bloggers and everything—and ako nga personally, between you and me, sayang it’s such a selling point for the play, pero I respect the kid's talent. So we didn't want to make him vulnerable.
CD: On the record ka ha.
FC: I would really rather not, but I hope this is what you use: He’s very brave. If people will ask, I will say. If people don’t ask, I won’t say.
RC: But of course people will ask, there's no way no one would ask.
FC: May isang nagtanong, and he answered very well.
CD: What did he say?
FC: ‘Yes. My family, we come from different political persuasions, but eventually we all respect each other’s decision. And I’m an actor,’ sabi niya. That boy’s on a roll. He just did Huling El Bimbo, etc. He was Eman, he was the Batangueño brother.
CD: That’s a casting coup.
FC: Well, we could ride on it but...’How did your dad feel about this?’ I asked him. ‘I’ll invite them,’ sabi niya.
CD: They are not aware. They have not seen it.
FC: I don't think they've seen him in this play.
RC: Nick is not a rabid partisan.
CD: He’s more...
RC: ..a professional who happened to get this fantastic account that gave him all the resources to do what he wanted to do.
FC: And I suppose Boo knows that also.
RC: I know Nic. He’s obviously pro-Duterte but a lot of it is wrapped up in his profession.
CD: Except it could prove embarrassing for him.
FC: Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that. In a sense, they’re both being professional, ang mag-ama, that way. The audience that has come to see the play are in a way like that, but on the opposite side. They do not like to be called dilawan. They are just concerned Filipinos who are finding an artistic medium. What I love also about the play right now is that in these very polarized times, the play presents a very simple solution: do what you want, what you can do best, and express yourself through it and maybe through that way old values come back, old ways of thinking come back—yun nga Kundiman! And it's all in the Kundiman: the idea of suffering for what you want to achieve. The way of working hard, the way of giving everything to the one you love. Ryan (Cayabyab) had a brilliant, brilliant analogy. He was saying, ‘Do you notice that all Kundimans start out in a minor key and they go to a major key? And they’re always about love, sadness, longing, desire, suffering? But in the end there's always that hope, which is why it goes into a major key and a major, kumbaga, expression of that emotion. It talks about the Filipino, that you need to pass through that.
RC: What would you say to someone who said you were inciting to sedition?
FC: I wish I would be so important, I don't know. Funny that one. I don’t know. Art cannot change governments, current realities. Art can only change the way people think and see present realities. The play isn't seditious. It doesn't call for the downfall of this administration. But it does call for a change in the way we percieve struggle and our part in it. Art has never led to a major revolution. Art cannot do that, that's not the purpose of art. Propaganda maybe. Art is only there to help an audience process a moment in time. That's why I hate it, my toes curl when everybody (says) ‘Huy, you have to keep writing because you can change the world.’ ‘Honey, no.’
RC: You have to keep writing because you write beautifully.
FQ: You can't (change the world.) ‘Hindi ko po responsibilidad yun.’
RC: People tell you that?
FQ: Yeah, art cannot change anything. Painting cannot change anything. Of course, it can memorialize great events like De la Croix liberty leading the people and then the constructivist Russian movement. It reflects moments. It helps you process things, as a record of time, but it won't change people.
RC: That's not your intention?
RC: Your intention is really to get people to process what is happening?
FQ: To process things.
CD: It’s a reflection of what is happening.
FQ: Yeah. It’s a snapshot, like a survey. It’s a snapshot of the times. It's not going to change.
CD: What did you intend the ending to be?
FQ: Ambiguous. Deliberately ambiguous. Did he go to fight? Did he become an NPA? What I wanted it to say is, Let’s stop relying on saviors. It was Arturo Hilado, the critic, who said that he was moved by the beauty of the play but he was unsettled by the ambiguity of the ending. For me, it's very simple: all I wanted to say is that its high time the middle-class should stop relying on, putting all our hope on leaders, who turn out to have feet of clay, and to try and do something concretely within their circles. In these very polarized times, hold on to the values that keep us human and dignified and connected. The darkness is gathering. We need a solid foundation within ourselves to face the struggle.
“The Kundiman Party” is on a limited run from May 24 to June 2 at the PETA-PHINMA Theater in Quezon City. Thursday and Friday shows are at 8 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday shows at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Photographs by Medal Elepaño