Pintig Cultural Group
at the Greenview Arts Center
When Patungao's father dies, he finds it difficult to feel any sadness. He recalls his father only as a broken man who came home from his low-paying job to drink beer, stare at the television, and sing mournful songs in a language he refused to teach his child. But when the embittered son accompanies his mother to his father's native land for the funeral, he learns the story of his family and the trials they've suffered--traumas they hoped to put behind them and from which they tried to shield him. "We wanted you to be American so that you would not have to feel our wounds," his mother explains, to which her son replies, "I want my stories back."
This is an exchange familiar to the children of immigrants whose well-meaning but overzealous attempts to assimilate can create painful rifts. In this case, the "old country" is the remote Kalinga mountain district of the Philippines, home to a warrior tribe whose centuries-old way of life has been repeatedly disrupted by outsiders. First anthropologists took away a band of "savages" (including Patungao's grandfather) to be displayed at the 1904 Saint Louis World Exposition. Then there were the warring armies of World War II, when Patungao's father fought with the guerrilla forces against the Japanese and received a medal from the U.S. Army, which he mistakenly believed would bring him respect in his new home. And in 1974 the Philippine government proposed the construction of a dam on the Chico River, a project that would virtually eliminate the isolated mountain tribes.
As Patungao watches rebels scarcely older than himself defy armed guards and die in the subsequent gunfire, he wonders, "How can they kill the people who tell such stories?" The young American also meets his grandfather, Ochas (played with otherworldly dignity by Rey Francia), who pronounces him "strong enough to be a Kalinga" and enjoins him to forgive his father. That night, Patungao dreams of his father, who explains, "When I came to America, my spirit did not come along." His son promises, "I'll find it for you."
In these nostalgic times, the line between documenting "noble, Rousseauian natives" and exhibiting "odd, primitive savages" may be a thin one. But in this Pintig Cultural Group production, playwright Rodolfo Carlos Vera isn't advocating a return to one's roots--Patungao does not rip off his Western clothes and don a loincloth and feathers--but only makes an appeal to remember the good offered by the old in the midst of the usual rush to embrace the new. And who can argue with that?
However sprawling Vera's mix of pageantry, politics, and propaganda, and however ingenuous his portrayal of the saintly Kalingas (likened to American Indians several times, just in case we missed the point), there is no denying the script's insight into the Asian American experience. Young Ochas's sister, Claire, is horrified to discover, too late, that her Western education and dress will not protect her from a pack of rowdy Yankee youths, and her brother (sensitively played in his youthful incarnation by Larry Leopoldo) is full of anguish when her funeral--a ritual normally lasting seven days--is interrupted by men from the Public Health Department, who carry away the body. These are universal emotions, and similarly the strife between Patungao (played with humor and compassion by Tony DeCastro) and his parents (Evelyn Masbaum and Rey Belen) has been enacted in living rooms all over America. Director Maria Isabel Legarda's intricately choreographed dances and musical coordinator Dino Santos's orchestrations (using traditional instruments such as the gonglike gansas and bung-kakas, devices resembling bamboo tuning forks) make for plenty of breathtaking spectacle as well as memorably introducing us to a culture on the brink of extinction.