When Antonio Ocampo Mabesa passed away peacefully last Friday, October 4, at 10:40 PM at The Philippine Heart Center, he was given a precious grace: He was surrounded by family.
And by family I mean those who were related to him by blood (his nieces and nephews), and those linked to him by the Theater. After the initial outburst of grief and tears, we were all faced with the serious work we had to do. We, his former students, knew that it was our sacred duty to send Sir Tony off in a style that best expressed our love and gratitude to the colleague, mentor/tormentor, ninong, father we had lost.
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His passing had a way of bringing all of us together. In keeping with the truest ethic of the theater, we all had to buckle up, put the personal aside and pitch in to accomplish the work at hand.
“Ayaw ni Tony na makalat at mukhang minadali (Tony didn’t like things to look rushed), we all reminded each other throughout the four day wake. That dictum served as a compass for the way his wake was conducted.
Now, one of Tony’s last wishes was for his remains be brought for an overnight vigil at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater in Palma Hall (an honor accorded to the remains of playwright Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero and director and faculty member Rogelio Juliano.) The vigil was to take place after the cremation last Wednesday. Dexter Santos and I knew that it couldn’t just be a memorial mass and a eulogy. It HAD to be show that Tony would be proud of. The title we decided on was “Tonight for Tony.”
Putting “Tonight for Tony” together in three days was an exercise in remembering. Not just the things we all learned about doing shows, but the taste and preferences of Tony himself. He hated cheap sentimentality and maudlin displays of affection. He detested sloppy staging. He abhorred shows that went on and on and on. He liked just the right amount of camp when things appeared to be going too seriously. Ever the fan of legends, he liked star appearances.
He hated cheap sentimentality and maudlin displays of affection. He detested sloppy staging. He abhorred shows that went on and on and on.
Always the teacher, he applauded honest student effort. A life-long intellectual, he demanded substance and gravitas. He enjoyed formality and had a deep respect for ceremony. But he also knew when the rules could be broken.
He also hated disorganized efforts. He wanted things and processes to be thought out clearly and executed thoroughly. But he also knew that in the hour of dread (“Hora de Peligro”), The Next Best Thing/Person/Execution would just have to do. Oh, and “Never, ever let the effort show,” was one life-long lesson we all learned from him.
And so the calls, the endless threads and chats, the assigning of roles and parts. “Leave your egos at the stage door please,” I wrote on the thread, “None of this is about you.” All the theater professionals he had mentored—directors, playwrights, actors, designers and technicians, academics, theater managers—had to be represented. The trick was choosing just the right mix of people. Everyone was given strict time limits for their eulogies. (Oh the complaints against the time limit! But well, someone had to be the bitch. Alas, that was me.)
“Leave your egos at the stage door please,” I wrote on the thread, “None of this is about you.”
These eulogies would be interspersed with readings from plays Tony had directed, by Tony’s favorite leading men and ladies. In between, musical numbers from both professional singers and students. In the middle of all this, Dexter and I suddenly realized that it couldn’t just be a show, it had to be the whole shebang. The entrance of the urn into Palma Hall and into the theater had to be moving and dramatic, too. The mass had to be said by a priest who had roots in Dulaang UP and who knew Tony well (There is only one in the whole wide world, so thank you, Fr. Manny Leyran for rushing from your parish in Aurora, Quezon.).
Now we may have had a show, but how would it look? We needed a stunning floral arrangement where the urn would nestle, a full LED screen for the videos, gorgeous evocative lighting for both ceremony and tribute. Again, another Tony dictum pushed us on: “If you will do anything at all, do it well. Make it beautiful. Why settle for the half-hearted?”
“If you will do anything at all, do it well. Make it beautiful. Why settle for the half-hearted?”
Magically, the community that Tony had nurtured came together. By Wednesday afternoon, after quick run-throughs of the major elements and just as Tony’s ashes were being brought from Arlington, we knew we had a show. (Make that “SHOH” said with the trademark Mabesa affectation.)
So maybe Anton Juan’s 34 minute eulogy was one for the books. (Never mind na, he flew in from Notre Dame University just to pay his last respects.) So, maybe, there were a few performance flubs (Eh, how naman kasi can you grieve, cry, sing and act at the same time and be perfect?). So maybe some of the eulogists broke down while speaking (Think, added Drama yan! Tony would like that.) In the end, what the show lacked in perfection (an impossible goal for sure), “Tonight for Tony” made up in Love.
Love and MOMENTS! A letter from National Artist Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio proclaiming Tony as “The Next National Artist for the Theater.” A luminous Ayen Munji-Laurel singing “Send in the Clowns.” Ricci Chan bringing the house down with an inspired rewritten version of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here.” Leo Rialp recreating the tender recognition scene from King Lear. Character actor Neil Ryan Sese, dapper and handsome, recalling his humble beginnings as favorite Mabesa “Bobo!” recipient. The leading ladies Frances Ignacio, Stella Mendoza, Candy Pangilinan and Dolly de Leon putting aside their exhaustion (They were the “Lamay Commitee” ) to recreate their roles in Tony’s plays. Finally, a resplendent Irma Adlawan turning a classic Mabesa put-down into an accolade. “Tony Mabesa, who do you think you are? Well, let me tell you who you are to all of us. God’s gift to Philippine theater!”
The finale of the show had no “Stars.” Instead the most recent graduates and current students of the Certificate program which Tony had established in 1998 came filing onstage, bearing the posters of his many plays. They sang “You Will Be Found,” that millenial anthem from the musical Dear Evan Hansen. It was a passing of the torch, an affirmation of Tony’s belief in the young. For it is in their hearts—indeed, all of ours who knew and loved him — that Tony Mabesa will always be found.
Photographs by Pat Buenaobra