KASAMA Vol. 16 No. 1 / January-February-March 2002 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network
Flesh, Forests, Foreign Aid and Faith
-below the bottom line in the global marketplace-
Written by Peter Copeman
Directed by Don Batchelor
Like a mystery parcel, you don't know what's inside until it's unwrapped, Peter Copeman's play has many surprises. DON BATCHELOR explained the background to this new version of SINAKULO in an interview with DEE DICEN HUNT.
The Visy Theatre in Brisbane's Powerhouse Centre for Live Arts is the smaller of two theatres in this new entertainment complex and I like its comfortable but casual atmosphere. Being out of town, I missed the opening night of "Sinakulo", so I was really pleased to be back in Brisbane before the end of its short run of 12 performances from February 28 to March 10.
In 1993 Peter Copeman was awarded an Australia Council Asia/Pacific Writers Fellowship which he used to research the background for his script, interviewing prostituted women in the sex tourism industry in the Philippines. Facilitated by Uniting and Catholic church workers, he got immersed in Filipino cultural activism at the village-level, reconnecting with the experiences of Filipino women he'd met in Australia. Copeman's script is in essence about sex tourism and the "mail-order-bride" enterprise or "pen-pal marriages" (his preferred terminology), as two sides of the same coin of the international trade in women. Around this theme he wrapped a Filipino sinakulo. Back in Australia Copeman's "Sinakulo" received equal top honours in the 1995 Playbox/Asialink National Playwriting Competition.
The word sinakulo (also spelled senakulo) comes from the Latin cenaculum - in English, "cenacle". In the Roman Catholic faith it refers to the room in which the Last Supper of Jesus Christ was held. In Spanish cena means supper and cenáculo is a gathering.
In the Philippines sinakulo is staged during Holy Week, sometimes for eight consecutive nights, as an epic play dramatising the passion and death of Christ. It is very popular particularly amongst Tagalog Christians. It is not an indigenous ceremonial ritual. When Spain colonised the Philippine Islands in the 16th century, cultural tools such as passion plays were used as instruments of occupation and religious conversion. It had also been used as a cultural tool against the censorship of artistic material that challenged the Marcos dictatorship. The sinakulo can take on a variety of formats, as community theatre in a small hall or incorporated in a street procession and fiesta. In some localities it has even evolved into displays of penitents engaged in self-flagellation and actual crucifixion while throngs of bystanders ogle and buy souvenirs.
Peter Copeman's original script ran for two hours and for this Brisbane production the director, Don Batchelor, collaborated with Copeman on a re-write that cut the running time to about ninety minutes.
"Sinakulo" begins in Manila airport where a young Filipina, Chari Letaba (Amaris Hernandez), meets an Australian priest, Father Brian Fingal (Adam Wade). Chari is migrating from the Philippines to Australia, sponsored by her sister Joi (Candice Leask) and Joi's pen-pal husband Harvey Osborne (Errol O'Neill). Father Brian has enjoyed his time in the Philippines and found the practice of liberation theology very stimulating. Like Chari, he is sad to leave and feels insecure about adjusting to a new way of life.
Chari is not long in her sister's house when she remembers Harvey from her past as a bar girl. Harvey had been in Manila on a sex tour prior to marrying Joi. Chari's family never knew how she'd earned her living after she left their village home for the city. Harvey blackmails Chari into having sex with him again. Joi announces her pregnancy.
Meanwhile Chari and Joi help Father Brian organise a sinakulo so he can 'break the ice' with his new parish. Chari finally refuses to allow Harvey to use her sexually any longer, but he attempts to rape her and she stabs him in the groin with a pair of scissors. The tragedy of Chari's life in prostitution is revealed, the sisters are reconciled, and while Harvey does not lose his life, he does however, lose his marriage and his wife.
The following lines from the script are an example of Copeman's technique in an insightful analogy between Filipino women and timber. Harvey, who is a carpenter, explains to the priest, Father Brian, his preference for imported Asian cabinet timbers:
Aussie hardwood has three uses, Father - fences, floors and firewood. It's a bitch for cabinet work. Might look all right but you can't work it - hard as nails, won't take a chisel clean, fights you every inch - and it's hell on a tool - spend all your time sharpening. But this Asian stuff is beautiful, light, looks great, takes a stain, soft and yielding. It's almost too soft, easy to bruise if you knock it around. But then - it's cheap - so you can always chuck away the damaged bit and get a new one.
Don Batchelor sees this passage as an example of the globalisation message in the play: "Exploitation of women is one of the effects economic rationalist globalisation is having in the Philippines, and internationally."
Don has lectured in Theatre Studies at Queensland University of Technology for the past 14 years. He has written for the stage, directed, produced and performed as well. His commitment to this production was more than amply demonstrated when despite being hospitalised for an emergency operation just before the start of rehearsals, he continued to work on the project with the assistance of an associate director, James Kable.
Don very kindly agreed to an interview and I asked him about the changes to the original script.
Don: "Chari's role was rewritten so that she was clearly the central character whereas originally the priest was more central. Harvey's character was rewritten; he was just plain wicked before. We changed it so that Chari becomes the main active character instead of a passive victim. The sinakulo scenes were cut from about 15 to 5, and the emphasis on sex tourism as an aspect of globalisation is new. These were the main changes. Using masks was a mechanism because we couldn't possibly reproduce the sinakulo, and Peter wrote in the part where Chari says, 'Why don't we do it like the Mariones and use masks.'"
The mask ensemble was comprised of two alternate teams of four actors, all university students, portraying 13 characters who interweave the story of Joi and Chari's lives with the sinakulo scenes. The masks were beautiful, very striking, and the choreography dramatic. But I was disturbed by the stereotypical portrayal of Jesus as a tall blond European-looking type contrasted with the short, dark, deformed Asiatic Judas, so I asked how this characterisation came about.
Don: "It's hard to pinpoint that. Tony Kishawi was in charge of the movement and mask work - mask and mime is his speciality. I wanted a folk feeling to it; lively, colourful and gaudy. Initially the students were going to make their own masks. We spent about a week or so doing that and whilst they were good, they weren't coherent; they looked very different in style. So Tony thought we needed to get somebody who could give them an overall style. He got Tiffany Beckwith-Skinner, who is a hair and makeup artist, to design the masks. I'm not quite sure why she chose to depict Jesus and Judas in that way, but I think she achieved the folksy feel that I wanted."
There is in the script another line of Harvey's that stuck in my mind. He compares having a pen pal to having a relationship with a prostituted woman and he says, 'same difference but clean'. He's talking here about his wife, Joi, and her sister, Chari. I wondered if this evoked objection from the Filipino community.
Don: "It's hard to know what the Filipino community is feeling because very few came to see the play, though I tried very hard to make connections and involve them. I think there was some suspicion about what we were trying to say. I was told that a couple of young women decided not to audition when they found out what the play was about."
There are two Asian women in the cast: Amaris Hernandez who plays Chari and Candice Leask who plays her sister Joi. Amaris is a Filipina. Don spoke about his difficulty in finding Filipino actors to audition.
Don: "Amaris is the only Filipino in the cast and the only one who auditioned. I'd been to the Filipino Coordinating Council. I went on the ethnic broadcasting Tagalog program and gave my telephone number out. The four main characters in the narrative of the story, are all performed by paid actors. I was lucky to get Amaris and Candice because they're both very good. This production is their professional debut. As I was having such difficulty I tried to get an adviser and that's when I went to Agnes Whiten and other university connections. Agnes said, 'it's a wonderful social comment play and it has good feminist things in it.' But, I was still very concerned about how the Catholic community would react to the crucifixion and rape sequence.
"We printed background materials, feedback sheets, and the students constructed the displays in the foyer. We got money from Queensland Arts to contextualise the show because I thought that not a lot of Australians know very much about the Philippines. We set up a web site and held events in the building with Filipino dancers. We did some events at the university and approached fringe media. These things were meant to develop an audience. My feeling was that the play would appeal to a niche audience from the Filipino community, not the general public. We also tried to target people who would have a political interest, like environmentalists, refugee support groups, feminists, but I don't think we really got through to them. I was quite convinced that the Internet was going to be a good way to reach people, because most activist groups are very Internet conscious, but that didn't seem to work."
I hope the crew and the cast are not discouraged - audience size is not an indicator of production and performance quality. I enjoyed the evening. But many people, not just Filipinos, still shy away from public dialogue about sex tourism, trafficking and prostitution.
You can read the production materials and air your views about the issues raised in the play at the "Sinakulo" web site at http://home.austarnet.com.au/swaby/sinakulo