SPOILER-ALERT: This is a critical reading of Kanakan-Balintagos’ material, and this discourse has delved deeply into the plot. There are major spoilers in the succeeding paragraphs. Proceed with caution, or better yet, go see the play first.
Literary critic and feminist Elaine Showalter’s liguistic model argues that even until now, women speak in the language of men. Despite modernization and fresh perspectives on gender, women still abide to the male-construct, especially in language. Kanakan-Balintagos’ newest play, MGA BUHAY NA APOY, tackles this argument and tries to gear deeper. Here, Balintagos reviews our own forgotten past of the Sacred Feminine and criticizes our continuing neglect of the original religions. Further, it is a 4-act discourse on two opposing faiths: one male and one female (or feminine, if you may), and creates a new platform for social arguments on which among the two helps create the “woman.” Finally, as it delves deep into the study of linguistic discourse, Balintagos presents a varying dimension on female language and the freedom from silence by returning to our forgotten tales and our deep ethnic roots.
A reunion/welcome party is in place. Leda Santos (Irma Adlawan) prepares the house for the return of her prodigal daughter. Aurora Alba (Karen Gaerlan) left home many years back because of a feud between her and her mother. But now that everything seems settled, she sends a message that she’s returning home. Enter Selma (Malou Crisologo), Leda’s supposedly youngest sister, who arrives at the rendezvous with her 13-year old daughter Topaz (Kyrie Samodio) and Selma’s new boyfriend Ringgo (JV Ibesate). Also in the guest list is another sister — Lili (Carol Bello) who arrives with Benj (Dennis Tadodian) — her boyfriend for ten years. And then there’s Arnan (Russell Legaspi), Leda’s favorite. but estranged son.
As the story progresses, we discover Leda’s secrets as well as the family’s ethnic roots. See, the Santoses were originally from Palawan, and the sisters have grown to maturity around ethnic traditions and beliefs. But now that Leda has finally outgrown all these, she has shifted to Catholicism and has been consistently denouncing her previous faith, branding the indegineous chants “demonic,” and “unspiritual.” For Leda, this renewal from the past (termed blatantly as “healing memory”) has helped her to reform her old ways, however, with considerable consequences.
One of which is her relationship with her son, Aran. In his dire search to know about his roots, he tries to remember the myths of old told by her mother and Aunt Lili. As Arnan continues to search, he creates and discovers, not just his roots, but also the hidden secrets of his own family. Along with this, as Leda suppresses her ethnic pasts and faith, she develops nightmares and sleepwalks. In these instances, she unconsciously narrates an archetypal tale of how she left her roots, got abused and still managed to give birth to three magical beings. During an instance, we discover her secrets and her oppressed state — one that is ultimately-woman in a struggle to be free.
In her chosen silence, Leda’s character depicts what Showalter argues in her linguistic model. As Leda continuously shuts her true being, the male dominated faith (Catholicism) takes hold of her and provides a promise of peace and renewal, however futile. Her sister Lili, who is still faithful to her roots and traditions of the Sacred Feminine, serves as the opposing character to establish Leda’s blatant denial of her past. As Lili dominates some of the scenes with her ethnic chants, both hypnotic and wonderfully delivered, Balintagos effectively juxtaposes Leda’s rebuttals to establish the contrasting forces between a silent woman, and a woman who has maintained her voice.
Worthy to mention too is the big apple-mango tree in the middle of the set that roofs the entire play. This towering image depicts dual meanings as it symbolizes opposing points in between the paired acts. In Acts 1 and 2, the tree overshadows almost everyone in the scenes. Jacques Lacan calls this the phallogocentric symbol, where men (or the male symbol) control everything, and in this case, Leda. Its presence is a continuing Freudian phallus that represents the invisible “male” that dominates Leda’s choices and decisions. In Act 3 and 4, the perspective changes. We move to the back of the garden and see the tree only as a compelling backdrop. Siblings Arnan and Aurora Alba reminisce, play, and argue under it. Aunt Selma unravels her secrets and allows her stories to unfold beneath its branches. Now, the tree that used to be a dominating phallus in the first acts, now represents Jung’s archetypal symbol for nurture and hope. The apple-mango tree transforms into something deeply spiritual, friendly and close to home as it offers a presence that calls to us to return to who we really are.
Another character worth studying is Selma. You see, as secrets unfold, you discover that Selma isn’t really Leda’s youngest sister but her eldest daughter from a traumatic past. Through Leda’s personal “silencing,” numerable consequences came after. Her first rape brought forth Selma, and in the former’s desire to get back to her past, has abused herself and her daughter along the way. Selma eventually got free from Leda’s grip, but soon became a wife to an abusive husband who gave her Topaz. Now, as Selma makes peace with her past and embraces the pains, she “speaks” her “voice” and frees herself in the end, and is trying to rebuild her life with Ringo.
Towards the end, Arnan makes peace with himself by setting off to Palawan, leaving his mother and sister, to pursue a journey to his own ethnic past. This new Oedipal stage marks the entrance of Arnan to a new language realm and Symbolic Order. As he moves on, he begins to get introduced to a new Mother, a new Feminine.
As Aurora Alba reads Arnan’s farewell letter to Leda, Selma and Topaz, Leda finally embraces her past and renews her original faith. She turns to the curious Topaz, and starts to tell her a folktale, making her believe that it is more than a myth. This time, under Arnan’s finished masterpiece in the greenhouse, Leda begins to speak again, thus freeing herself and empowering her soul.
Kanakan-Balintagos’ MGA BUHAY NA APOY presents female characters that provide available perspectives on the silencing of women and their own language. As Arnan returns to his true home to discover who he is and embrace whatever comes after; and as Leda closes the 4-act drama with a compelling narration of a forgotten myth (or a magical history), Balintagos whispers that while men continue to build traditions, women share the power as they “speak” and “tell” the stories for the next generation.