MANILA -- Riding a taxi in Baguio City, veteran playwright Malou Jacob found out the driver was a Maranao.
"Sa Baguio kasi may maliit na komunidad ng mga Maranao and they've relocated there, I think, since the Martial Law years. They even have a small mosque near their community," Jacob, who has been a resident of the City of Pines since 2012, told ABS-CBN News during a recent visit in Manila.
Jacob's play, "Batang Mujahideen" will be staged by Tanghalang Pilpino starting February 22 (with only 3 p.m. performance) until March 8, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Little Theater.
"Mujahideen" in Arabic is the plural form of "mujahid," which means someone engaged in a "jihad," or a war against the enemies of Islam.
The play revolves on a 7-year-old Yakan girl named Fatima, a resident of Basilan province. At an early age, she is exposed to violence. She witnessed the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping of 52 civilians composed of a priest, teachers and students in Sumisip town on March 20, 2000. The bandits were led by Khadaffy Janjalani, co-founder of the Abu Sayyaf.
In Jacob's story, Fatima's father is killed and she vows to avenge his death. Disguising herself as a boy, she joins the ranks of the mujahideen.
In that taxi ride while engaging in a light conversation, the inquisitive nature typical of writers like Jacob brought a major surprise and a sad realization. She found out the driver, despite being a Baguio resident for almost four decades, still feels a stranger in the city he calls home.
"Sabi niya sa 'kin, hindi naman sila citizen dito. That's how they feel. I was stunned. There's a prevailing culture of discrimination. Hindi lang pala mga Christian decision-makers ang dapat maabot ng pagbabago," Jacob said.
"By staging this play, I hope we can make a difference," she added.
Directing the play is Guelan Varela Luarca, who thought of infusing elements of devised theater, documentary theater, dance, puppetry and other experimental forms. But more than anything, he considered "Batang Mujahideen" a "peace play."
"Noong binigay sa akin ni Tata Nanding ang script, it was really a challenge," Luarca said, referring to Fernando Josef, TP artistic director.
"It's an honor to direct a play by Malou Jacob. Nakita niyo naman ang mga works niya as playwright and buhay nya. She's a freedom fighter," Luarca said.
"Andun 'yung kaba. I am a Christian and a Manilenyo and the material is a narrative belonging to the indigenous peoples in Mindanao. The only time I was there was with Ateneo teachers for an outreach program for the Marawi rehabilitation," he added.
The young award-winning playwright Luarca is also a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University and the artistic director-moderator of Tanghalang Ateneo.
"This is my my way of reconnecting, connecting my heritage to them, na may dugo rin akong katulad ng sa kanila," he said.
"We are aware na hindi namin kwento ito. With dramaturg Dominique La Victoria, who is from Mindanao, we hope to give justice to Malou Jacob's material," Luarca added.
La Victoria is also an award-winning playwright who hails from Cagayan de Oro City. Her plays "Chipline" and "Ang Bata Sa Drum" have been staged in the annual Virgin Labfest, a festival of plays co-produced by Tanghalang Pilipino.
La Victoria said they tried to immerse themselves in providing historical context.
"We are trying to be sensitive as we can. We are not going to approach this with fear but with as much research as we can," she said.
Luarca added: "The play actually tackles separation sa family, the flight of the Yakan IPs, the Abu Sayyaf, our country's recent history. It is about the courage of a kid who is taking responsibility to avenge her father's death. It's about family. Ultimately the play is about peace and my job as director is the story is told well."
In jest, he described the story of Fatima in three "Ms": modern, Mulan and Muslim.
He emphasized that "Batang Mujaheedin" is his first peace play. Luarca's one-act plays "Mga Kuneho" and "Bait" won first prizes in the Palanca and were also staged at the Virgin Labfest. He has also translated plays for TP, most recent was last year's "Coriolano."
"Mga past plays ko about violence. Some friends even told me, 'Guelan, nag-mature ka na," he said, seriously.
Luarca emphasized the term "highly collaborative" as members of TP's Actors Company have been helping him in orchestrating and curating the play. This is the reason why in the promotional posters and program notes, he didn't use the term "directed by" but instead: "Staging by Guelan Luarca and the Actors Company."
Jacob was a resident of Mati City in Davao Oriental for six years when she was still a student. When she was executive director of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, she conducted workshops for the Lumads and this brought her to Zamboanga, Marawi, Tawi Tawi and Jolo. Before she wrote "Batang Mujahideen," it can be said her research took decades.
"I was fascinated by what I've experienced. For example, in Zamboanga, ordinary Christians are living peacefully together with the Muslims and Lumads. And that's how it should be, we should look at them not as second-class citizens but equals," Jacob said.
Jacob said "Batang Mujahideen" shows different points of view and there are characters that convey the sentiment of the Muslim people.
"Why are they willing to even join the world of jihads if things do not improve in their community? If we think about it, since the American Occupation, people have been coming in and they have been using their ancestral lands while they are in the midst of poverty. The play also shows their points of view, why they are fighting for their right to be recognized by the government," Jacob said.
"It's very timely because we have just passed the Bangasamoro Organic Law. It will succeed if we also change the hearts and minds of our leaders," she added.
"That's why we are targeting the Christian community as audience. They are the majority that can shape the success of the unity of the Lumad, Muslim and themselves, the Christian people," Jacob said.
Luarca added that in order to reach a wider audience, he hopes other theater groups will stage the play in the provinces, especially in Mindanao.
"Let this play be shown everywhere but not us. Let other groups take over the script," he said.
Storytellers, vessels of peace
Members of the Actors Company who are part of the play are Doray Dayao, JV Ibesate, Jonathan Tadioan, Lhorvie Nuevo, Marco Viaña, Eunice Pacia, Monique Nellas and Ybes Bagadiong. They also have a guest actress, Iman Ampatuan, an alumnus of Tanghalang Ateneo.
The artistic team is composed of Antonette Go as assistant director, Viaña as production designer, Paw Castillo as production designer, D. Cortezano as lights designer, Arvy Dimaculangan as sound designer-music director-arranger-puppeteer, Jomelle Era as choreographer, and Joyce Anne Garcia as production designer.
Go said it's their first time to do devised theater, a form wherein the actors are doing creative collaboration that is almost improvisatory. But what is more important is the story of Fatima and her community.
"Malaking blessings na nagiging instrument kami. Manilenyo din kami at 'yun din ang magiging audiences namin," she said.
Among the challenges for the actors is playing multiple roles.
Asked about her opinion in being part of the experimental play, Dayao said at the end of the day, she is just a storyteller.
In agreement, Ibesate said in telling a story that is not theirs, they become vessels.
"But in every production we do, we are extra careful. We portray the characters in the most objective way possible. The difference in doing this play from the classical plays we did in the past is that we are not fictionalizing these things. Every one of us, may contribution sa progression ng story. Hindi lang galing sa pag arte, kundi pagiging critical sa nangyayari ngayon," Ibesate said.
Tadioan agreed, saying, "Hindi lang change ng mind but change of heart. Intindihin bakit natin ginagawa. 'Yung buong psychology ng tao kailangan tingnan. Truth is our foundation. Kelangan naming ikwento, ibahagi. Malay natin kahit sa munting paraan, may magawa sa pagbabago."
Nuevo said if we Google what happened during the Abu Sayyaf mass kidnapping in 2000 and what its leader Janjalani did, there's nothing positive that would come out. "In the play, there's a different perspective. Ano 'yung rason nila bakit nila ginagawa yun?" she said.
Pacia, the youngest member of the cast, recounted how as a child the only images of Muslims that were imprinted on her was what she saw on television.
"Pagbukas ko ng 'TV Patrol,' yung image ng dalawang foreigners katabi ng mga terrorists na pupugutan ng ulo. 'Yun ang tumatak sa akin ng image ng Abu Sayyaf. Pero pwede naman maging peaceful lang. Wala naman kami noong nangyari 'yun. Sana nabigyan sila ng pagkakataon na kaya lang sila lumalaban kasi my mali. Huwag pangunahan ng judgment," Pacia said.
In agreement, Nellas said, "Napakaganda na nagsasama sa isang layunin in all forms.
Bagadiong, who is also an indie film actor, said, "Sobrang laking bagay bilang devised play. Nagko-contribute lahat. As for me, nagbabasa ako ng makapal na libro about (Muslim history, culture, arts). Ang maganda sa play na ito, hindi pretentious. Dadating ka manonood ka na may sensibilidad na Kristiyano. Pero maiintindihan mo bakit ganon ang sitwasyon ng mga Muslims at indigenous peoples sa Mindanao."
He added: "Kaya iniimbitahan ko kayong lahat manood ng play na ito. Napaka-relevant sa ating panahon."