nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 15, 2007
In school I learned that the United States "acquired" the Philippines after the Spanish-American War in 1898. And that's about all I remember being taught on that subject; I'll bet I have that in common with most Americans.
Kinding Sindaw's powerful new theatre piece Parang Sabil remedies my lack of education about the American occupation of the Philippines. It's a lesson in history and the collision of cultures that needs to be on everyone's agenda.
Two narratives are skillfully interwoven here. One is a retelling of a kissa (legendary ballad) from the Tausug tradition about a Prince who becomes betrothed to the Sultan's daughter just as occupying soldiers from the West arrive on their island (according to the program notes, this legend was "retold in different periods of occupation, with different antagonists—the Spanish in the 18th and 19th centuries, then the American army in the early 20th century"). The other is a stark tale of conquest, recounted in the words of contemporary observer Mark Twain. The Americans, under General Leonard Wood, were supposedly on a mission of "benevolent assimilation" to Christianize the Filipino "savages" (who were, in fact, Muslims). But the only word Twain can find to describe what actually happened is a terrible one: slaughter.
Under the direction of Potri Ranka Manis, who conceived and choreographed Parang Sabil and also stars in it, Kinding Sindaw tell these two stories in movement and song, with interspersed narration by Twain (portrayed masterfully by Ken Schatz) and an onstage storyteller, Onawumi Jean Moss. The movement is based on traditional Filipino dances (the program notes provide vivid and fascinating background) and is performed by an ensemble of 20. The music is wondrous, played on a variety of traditional percussion instruments; the lead musician, Nurnonilon V. Queano Ph.D., displays remarkable versatility as he moves among them, effortlessly and dexterously.
The juxtaposition of stories and styles—Filipino religious rituals and chants contrasted with soldiers on parade or singing rowdy camp songs, for example—is enormously effective. One of the main strategies of this piece is to present to American audiences a picture of Filipino life before the occupation: a world that's strange and unfamiliar to us, untranslated and unannotated, for us to appreciate and recognize though not completely understand. 100 years ago Americans thought nothing of destroying such a culture. Can such a thing still be true?
The climax of the piece, depicting the massacre of some of the Tausugs, is awful and edifying: a shameful moment in our history that has largely been hidden from us. Kinding Sindaw, in reclaiming that history and presenting it with such grace and intelligence in this unique and enlightening show, does us all a great service in Parang Sabil.