Theater as a Mirror of Reality?: Reflections on the “Ang Huling El Bimbo: The Hit Musical” Debate

By Kiel Ramos Suarez*

On May 7, 2020, ABS-CBN streamed Ang Huling El Bimbo: The Hit Musical (AHEB) online on YouTube and Facebook for free. In 48 hours, the video garnered around 7 million views and stirred conversations among friends, family members, and even strangers on the Internet.

Like many who watched the show, I felt perplexed that I needed time to emotionally and intellectually process what I saw. I read Facebook and Twitter posts. I reached out to friends, and even to some strangers. Finally, I spoke to women’s rights advocates about their thoughts on the musical. 

This essay is a result of those reflections and conversations.

Ang Huling El Bimbo and the Male Perspective 

AHEB is a story of friendship, struggles, and life-changing decisions. Set in the 1990s, the musical weaves a story with songs of the rock band Eraserheads in an attempt to take its viewers into a journey of nostalgia.

My initial thought about the musical was that it was quite impressive. Gab Pangilinan’s performance was unmatched. The band was amazing, and I especially liked the scene where there were different renditions of “Huwag Kang Matakot.” Each rendition was sung by three different actors to convey three different relationships. At its best, the musical reminds us of the power of music to transform meanings and narratives. As a friend says, the outwardly happy song “With a Smile” has become a song of regret.

Looking more closely at the musical’s plot, however, reveals many layers that need to be unpacked. A key theme in the musical is rape and sexual violence, and how male characters react to a life-changing incident. The narrative is highly gendered, which is probably the reason why the musical was received with much controversy.

The musical was written and directed by two Filipino men: actor-playwright Dingdong Novenario, and director and choreographer Dexter Martinez Santos. Such male perspective manifests in the show’s main focus on the lives of three male friends: Emman, Anthony, and Hector. Joy, a survivor of rape, is relegated to a supporting role in the men’s journey.

Emman, Anthony, and Hector fail to properly deal with the situation when their friend is raped one night on a joyride to Antipolo. They panic and are confused on what to do. Will they take her to the hospital? To the police? Hector ends up deciding for the group, without any consideration for what Joy wants: that they forget about it and that Joy, “strong” and “resilient” as she is, will just “overcome” it. 

The story unfolds and we see that the relationships of the characters dramatically change after the incident, both individually and as a group. Joy is left to deal with the rape on her own. Naiwan siya, or more aptly, iniwan siya.

The message of this part of the narrative, to me, is quite clear: silence is oppressive. It exposes how ill-equipped people are when faced with an emergency situation of sexual assault. It criticizes men’s silence and complicity in violence. Silence is oppressive because it privileges order and harmony over someone’s trauma. Being actively shut out from her friend’s lives makes Joy experience a second level of violence. In my view, the show deserves some credit for featuring the reality of how sexual violence and silencing operate.

It is important to note that the three male characters are portrayed as “good guys.” Prior to the rape, all three have healthy relationships with Joy. They are not especially “misogynistic” towards her. But as pointed out earlier, their silence on Joy’s experience makes them complicit in violence against women. They are good guys, and yet, are still complicit. This shows how violence against women operates in a way that is subtle and insidious. On this note, the musical somehow challenges the norm that only violent men commit violence. Good guys can be guilty of that as well.

A conversation with a friend led me to realize that the characters of Emman, Anthony, and Hector reflect our expectations of men. Kumbaga, boys will be boys, palibhasa, lalaki! Their inaction and silence reveal that men treat sexual violence as a trivial issue. Since the story is set in the 1990s, can we say that their inaction is reflective of their time? Conversely, do men today know what to do in a similar situation, given that we now have systems in place that address rape and violence against women?

Perhaps the most problematic part of the narrative is the ending. Joy ends up dead in the streets, and with her disappears any chance for redemption. The men, on the contrary, lead successful lives despite their feelings of regret and restlessness. A friend observes that in the last scene, the three men are depicted as “saviors” of Ligaya, Joy’s daughter. It is shown that through their help, Ligaya can do what her mother could not, which is to reach for the stars. It is implied that the men can still “save” Joy by saving Ligaya, who they probably see as another, second “Joy.” The sidelining itself of Joy’s character is problematic. Critics note that her experience of sexual violence is merely used as “shock value” in the narrative.

One can argue that AHEB’s plot is not a story of redemption, but a story of reality. But is it, really?

“Mirroring” the Reality of Sexual Violence

Theatrical playing, according to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, holds a mirror up to nature. In 2020, does this statement hold true?

Part of the experience of watching the show is a confrontation of my own privileged unawareness of rape and sexual violence. This is why it is quite difficult for me to say what narratives should or should not be “mirrored” in a theatrical representation of these. I could not entirely empathize with Joy’s story of an underprivileged woman who experiences sexual abuse. I know that I can only understand her character from a distance.

Perhaps the most important criticism of the show is its lack of a “trigger warning.” The production team did not warn its viewers about possible triggers in the show, as it quite graphically depicts sexual violence. Many women, whether they experienced gender-based violence or not, said that the rape scene distressed them.

In their work, frontliners who carry out activities and training on violence against women would ask, “if there will be people triggered by the conversation, what do we do?” Frontliners then make sure that processing and counseling are part of the formula and design of activities. “Di pwedeng basta buksan, tapos pabayaan,” as a friend notes.

This, however, was what happened after staging AHEB. There had been no space for dialogue, both online and offline. This was different in the case of the one-woman play, Ang Dalagita’y ‘Sang Bagay na ‘Di-buo, a Filipino adaptation of Irish writer Eimear McBride’s novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013) which tackles sexual abuse. Dalagita was staged by Dulaang UP in 2018. There was a forum after each performance. “The play dealt with a very disturbing subject matter, a talk back/debriefing session was held after each show where members of the audience can ask questions from the actress and the dramaturg Ina Azarcon-Bolivar, or vent their feelings about the play they just saw.” 

AHEB was not able to provide that important space, which left viewers perplexed and unsatisfied.

Through my conversation with women’s rights advocates, I came to understand that there was indeed a certain level of irresponsibility and carelessness that came with developing Joy’s character. Joy’s character lacks depth and her portrayal perpetuates stereotypes of women (i.e. rape survivor-turned-prostitute/drug dealer; woman who suffers silently; kind, forgiving woman, etc.). As one friend says, if we look at the play as art that could disturb, enlighten, or transform, then we will be disappointed as it is sorely lacking. Too often have we seen all these narratives play out in different media (e.g. TV, movies, plays, etc.).

What is wrong with continuously portraying these tropes? Is it because we end up becoming desensitized to them? Is it because they have been commodified for mere media consumption? What do we do then if we want to promote awareness on important, often uncomfortable, issues without falling into these traps?

One the one hand, it is important to depict narratives like this to keep stressing the reality of inequalities. On the other, doing so without much thought and care can also perpetuate misrepresentation through stereotyping.

Sexual violence is a very sensitive topic and portraying survivors in art is not an easy task. Therefore, in order to convincingly claim that Joy’s character is indeed representative of maralitang kababaihan and that the musical actually serves as a mirror of reality, extensive research should have been carried out. We must understand that Joy’s character experiences multiple and intersecting layers of oppression — as a woman in a patriarchal society, as a survivor of sexual abuse, as a woman who suffers from systemic poverty, as a Filipina from the Global south, and as a victim of tokhang. Did the production team do the actual legwork for this? 

Without such legwork, careful analysis, and sensitivity, the portrayal of rape survivors can come out as sloppy and not well-thought of. In developing the award-winning The Vagina Monologues, U.S. playwright Eve Ensler interviewed more than 200 women. While the play can reflect Euro/Anglo-North American centrism, it shows us the importance of listening to women’s voices. I can only imagine how different AHEB could have turned out if such extensive research was also fulfilled, and if the creators actually listened to narratives of real-life survivors. One can argue that this might be too much to ask for in a musical, but the critical reception and divisive views of the audience show that such legwork may be necessary.

Such lack of substance and depth leads to the play’s failure to portray Joy’s character accurately, misrepresenting survivors of rape. As a woman, Joy is robbed of her space, resistance, and agency. Such stereotype dangerously sends the message that women cannot do anything but accept their fate. Yes, the musical exposes the reality of inequalities and circumstantial limits, but it fails to recognize that we have also come a long way in the fight for women’s rights.

The play is set in the 1990s, but it was written from the perspective of today. In the Philippines, the Asociacion Feminista Filipina (AFF), the earliest known organization that identified as feminist, was founded in 1905. In the 1930s, we had the suffrage movement which fought for women’s right to vote at the time of U.S. colonization. Then, the women’s movement grew in the 1970s during Martial Law. Gay and lesbian alliances were formed in the 1990s. In 1997, the Anti-Rape Law was enacted. Today, we have various lawmakers, civil society organizations, government offices, and universities that work together to protect and promote the rights of women and people with diverse SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression).

To me, the play fails to mirror the reality of sexual violence, because ultimately, it does not show the reality of resistance.

From Theater as Mirror to Space for Social Change

I remember attending a friend’s dissertation defense where it was discussed that narratives produced are reflections of what is happening in society. As long as there is rape and sexual violence, narratives like Joy’s will persist, because otherwise, we get detached from reality. However, it was discussed that art (sining) has the capacity to effect social change, even in little ways, which is why the transformative aspect of the narrative is important for us to break away from stereotypes and to develop new stories that will better represent our reality. 

Theater has been used in many parts of the globe as a platform for social change. An example would be theatrical productions in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia which showcased the growing resistance to European colonialism during the 1920s and 1930s. Similarly, there were Indonesian grassroots theatrical plays that tackled resistance against the Suharto regime in Yogyakarta in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the Philippines, the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) was founded during Martial Law. All of these show the transformative aspect of theater as a means to empower and to advocate for social change.

If I have a main take-away from watching the musical and from engaging in the debate, it would be this: theater is no longer just a mirror to society. It is no mere entertainment. We are now more critical. People are now more vocal. We now see theater as something that can and should offer more.

On a final note, writers, producers, and directors need to keep up with the changing attitudes and views of Filipinos and Filipinas. Male directors need to be self-reflexive and critical about their positionality when talking about issues on women and LGBTQ communities. Extensive research is essential. Better yet, for productions like AHEB that showcase violence against women, women directors should be on the frontline. When it comes to gender/SOGIE-based experiences, the voices and perspectives of women and LGBTQ individuals should be put first above anyone else’s.

It is a continuing conversation, and every time we engage, we learn more.

Special thanks to Jelen Paclarin, Bea Quintos, Faye Cura, Leal Rodriguez, BL Lanot, Brenda Pureza, Jona Ang, Angel Bautista, Katherine Lao, Gela Liwanag, Karen Ybañez and Reena Macagga for engaging in productive conversations with me.

References

Amine K., Carlson M. “The Theatre of Resistance,” in The Theatres of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Studies in International Performance. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Bodden, Michael H. Resistance on the National Stage: Theater and Politics in Late New Order Indonesia. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010.

Hawson, Fred. “Theater review: Dulaang UP harrowingly tackles sexual abuse in one-woman play,” in ABS-CBN News. February 28, 2018. Accessed on May 10, 2020. https://news.abs-cbn.com/life/02/28/18/theater-review-dulaang-up-harrowingly-tackles-sexual-abuse-in-one-woman-play

Mcbride, Eimear. A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. USA: Coffee House Press, 2014.


*Kiel is an aspiring researcher in gender and sexuality history in Southeast Asia. She is currently pursuing doctoral studies in Sweden.

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