On Reconstructing "Itim Asu",
Drama by Virginia R. Moreno
Itim Asu - who is she, who am I, why would I attempt my own version of the drama of Virginia Moreno? With so many brilliant and exceptional artists before me, what right did I have?
First, the burden of history: the drama, Itim Asu is about the Mexican wife of Gov. Gen. Fernando Bustamante, one of the more compassionate governor-general of the Spanish colonial period who tried to institute reform but who was murdered by an alleged conspiracy of friars in 1719. Interestingly, no one was indicted for the murder; and the assassination, involving an entire day of mob riots in Manila, was practically erased from the archives of the Royal Audiencia of Manila. Bustamante is scantly mentioned in history. According to one very detailed account/document, his wife Doña Maria joined the peasant revolutionary movement and avenged her husband's death through the murder of friars in the lakeshore towns of Laguna. Hence, she came to be known as "La Loba Negra", the "black-she-wolf" or "Itim Asu" in translation. This lone document is attributed to one of three martyred priests, Fr. Jose Burgos, and this is, in its core, the drama of Virginia Moreno.
That in itself is interesting. But the plot thickens. In recent years, after the drama was first staged in the 1970s, there were allegations that this document is a forgery. However, it is undeniable that Felix Hidalgo created a painting of the assassination of Gov. Gen. Bustamante, which after many decades of being kept hidden, now stands displayed at the National Museum. Dr. Jose Rizal, national hero, dedicated his subversive novel "El Filibusterismo" to the three martyred priests.
That means there are either layers of forgetfulness or layers of untruths.
Then, secondly, there is also the burden of the import of this drama in art history: the play, emerging in the early 1970s, engaged many brilliant artists in its various stagings-directors Rolando Tinio, Anton Juan, actors Vic Silayan, Lolita Rodrgiuez, Daisy Avellana, Alice Reyes for choreography in a memorable ballet that became staple in the repertoire of what is now Ballet Philippines, with music by Alfredo Buenaventura. A film in 16mm by Romy Vitug of this ballet exists.
Admittedly, a tough act to follow. But this drama-and its heroine-beckons to a contemporary mind. Being a play within a play, it has the feel of the contemporary with its "box within a box" structure. It leaps in time and, in its stringing together of events, seems illogical:
It houses the incident of the assassination of Gov. Gen. Bustamante as the play within the play, while at play's end, the "game-changer" episode from "El Filibusterismo" (when Simoun's planned revolution fails) is staged as the finale of the play within the play- two seemingly unconnected episodes with great gaps in time. When fiction blurs into reality at play's end, we hardly know if it is Macario Sakay (as the lead actor of the play) or Bustamante or Fr. Jose Burgos or Jose Rizal who is killed onstage. Clearly, the playwright's intent is to comment on the connectedness/ the link/ the symmetry between these two episodes, on a certain repetitiveness in our history.
What connecting thread I see in these disparate episodes, and how I relate it to my reality as a Filipino in the 21st century, is all in this work that I am creating as Itim Asu- strung together as 1719-2009. My reconstruction is by no means definitive and final and though I have taken liberties in the chronology of the scenes- this is what I hear. It is what I sense wrapped around the play within this play. I hear the mute long wail.
If one comes away from this evening with a real sense, an idea, of the feeling of being in the middle of history, if, in the process, I would cause curiosity or inquiry about this drama, or its subject or the famous painting that is now displayed at the National Museum, or this episode in our history and its meaning, I think I would be happy. Then again, even if the audience does not take time to go beyond this production to explore its subject or its meaning, given our busy contemporary world- full of competing images, full of indifference to things and events, full of noise and clutter, and disembodiment- if, however, they are moved from within after the experience of this production, moved in their bodies, and if they begin to hear some of what I hear, then this is enough for me, as an artist.
Myra C. Beltran
Choreographer and Dancer