KASAMA Vol. 20 No. 2 / April-May-June 2006 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Gary Lee
Keep Him My Heart:
A Larrakia-Filipino Love Story

Gary Lee’s play "Keep Him My Heart: A Larrakia-Filipino Love Story", had only six performances in a beautiful outdoor setting at the Darwin High School Tank on 20-22 & 27-29 August 1993. Ever since our colleague Bong Ramilo told us about the production, it’s been our dream to somehow get to talk to the author about the play. This year, during June 9-12, the indigenous arts festival “The Dreaming” had its second production at Woodford and Gary Lee was on the program! Emere Distor and Dee Hunt tracked him down and he very generously agreed to be interviewed.

Emere: We didn’t get a chance to get to Darwin to see “Keep Him My Heart”. The play was written more than 10 years ago, what’s happened with it?

What’s happening with the play? Actually not a lot. I adapted the script for touring; cut the number of child actors from 11 down to 5. I haven’t got rid of a lot of characters, essentially it’s the same script. I’ve updated the ending and it’s all done and sitting gathering cobwebs.

Basically the plot is a Larrakia-Filipino love story spanning 100 years of a family’s history in Darwin. It’s about a Filipino-Spanish sailmaker from Calape, Bohol who ended up in Darwin before the turn of the century. He fell in love with a local Larrakia girl Magdalena McKeddie - she was called Lily. They had 9 children and it’s a beautiful love story. That was my great-grandfather Antonio Cubillo who travelled back to the Philippines a couple of times. Tragically he was in the Philippines when World War Two broke out and was stuck there for about 11 years and ended up dying there just as he was about to return to Australia. So my great-grandma never saw him again. Tragic.

Lily’s father, George McKeddie, was a Scottish free settler from Melbourne where there’s a big family of McKeddies. He came to Darwin in 1874, met a Larrakia woman, Annie Duwun and had two children, one was Lily. All her children had Filipino names: Juan, Agripina, Pilar. They were Larrakia but they had Filipino names.

Emere: You have a very interesting family history. Have you always been aware of this Filipino connection?

Always aware from when I was little - totally aware that I had a great-grandparent who came from Calape, Bohol. I knew about the Chocolate Hills when I was 3 or 4; knew all about it, didn’t know exactly where it was but I knew all about that. Oral history, oral tradition was so strong in my family. I knew all that before I went to primary school.

Emere: And it took you so many years before you put your thoughts into writing? Tell us about that.

Originally I intended to write a book, a story. I went to university in Canberra, studied to be an anthro¬pologist. I had so many debts after uni, so I got a job at the Australia Council in the Aboriginal Arts Board. I was in the lift one day and lunch times at the Australia Council they’d have cultural groups performing down¬stairs, and they had a Filipino theatre group there one time, who I thought I must go and see. In the lift on the way back up after lunch I was standing next to this guy with long hair and we just started chatting. “My name is Bong,” he said, “are you Filipino?” I said, “No, but I have Filipino blood in me.” And I rattled off my family history in about 3 seconds before the lift got to where we were going. He was mesmerized and said, “Could we meet?” So we met a few days later for coffee and I blurted out all the story and I told him about the rondalla music tradition that my great-grandfather brought to Darwin - to Australia. And he was fascinated and asked, “Have you ever thought of doing anything with this? Have you ever considered a play?” And I said, “A play – I’m not a playwright. I wouldn’t know how to write dialogue, I wouldn’t know the first thing about it.” He said, “Let’s talk about it.” And from that meeting in the lift of the Australia Council, my meeting and friendship with Bong Ramilo started and due to that, a play was eventually written.

 Emere: Tell us about the response of the audience when you finally performed in front of the Darwin community.

You know, Em, it was such a labour of love. It took 3 years of hard work between Bong and myself. We got very good financial support from the Australia Council, and we got a development grant. “Well, you’d better write the script,” Bong said. One thing I did have at my disposal was a rich legacy of family history. I knew that Filipino story backwards, right back to Bohol, I knew every detail, and I also had a good ear for how people talked. I told him I wanted to tell the story over 100 years of this Aboriginal family in Australia and our link to the Philippines which is still maintained to this day. And he said, “Okay, start writing. Go on, give it a go.” I was at his flat and in one afternoon I wrote the first act. I had no real idea of what to do, but I had the idea of the story. And, I wanted the story to signify the different decades through photography, because I knew that my family had many photographs, especially of my aunts’ visit to the Philippines in the 50s. I’ll never forget when they came back with all those Filipino dresses with the big butterfly sleeves. There they were, stunning, walking around Darwin – Larrakia girls with those stunning Filipino dresses. There were all these links with my family – all my aunts wore mantillas and their fans were very big. We had novenas when people died, we had lots of Filipino traditions still in our family. We had Filipino food, dishes that I grew up with that we took for granted. So I was very lucky. As an Aboriginal person I have this other tradition to draw upon, and that was the case when I started writing the play.

We recreated the Rondalla Orchestra. We got all the instruments – octavinas, mandolins, 12-stringed guitars – everything from the Philippines. I wanted to recreate the era, not only through projected images but also through music. I researched the music that was popular in my great-grandparents time, the sorts of music they used to play around early Darwin. In fact the Cubillo Brothers Orchestra was the only musical tradition in the Northern Territory at the turn of the century. I was also the set designer and the costume designer - it just about killed me - but we did it.

The first night of that play, what was so magical for me after all those years, was to see the opening scene and to have the rondalla playing that music. What I tried to incorporate in that play was humour and pathos and sadness, because that’s how it was in my family, and I did that. The first night, when it was over, there was a standing ovation. I stood there for about an hour and a half because there were so many people lining up to tell me personally how much that play meant to them. Because even though the play is about my family’s history, I made it a play also about human values, about love for family, love for ancestors, love for place, love for home. It was about love and heartbreak, death, birth. So it was a play that people could relate to. Every night that occurred, I would have to wait while people told me how much the play affected them. The other beautiful thing was that on each successive night – there were 6 nights – we had to increase the seating by about 60 to 80 chairs each night. Then on the final performance night, I got all my female relatives, the descendants of Antonio and Lily Cubillo, some of whose characters were in the play, to cook all this Darwin Filipino-style food to present to the audience. We had dinaguan, chicken and pork adobo, we had everything. We had all the lovely stuff that we grew up with.

And the female members of the family presented bouquets of flowers to the cast and the crew. Because that was the other thing about the play - I wanted to link the Larrakia Aboriginal community and the Filipino community in contemporary Darwin. I wanted to bring that together as well as through the casting, and it was just so beautiful, so touching. People were crying – white people, local people, Filipino people – how wonderful.

Gary Lee

Emere: How did your family react when they learned that the family would be the topic of the play. Were they surprised? What was their reaction?

Totally supportive. I told them that I’d met Bong and he’s encouraging me to write this play and they said, “Good”. We formed a family committee with members of the Filipino community as well as my family to give advice about the play. We met once a fortnight and had beautiful food at my aunt’s house, and they practiced the dancing and we had the rondalla there. It was absolutely gorgeous under the big mango tree at the back. So we really brought the Filipino and the Larrakia community in Darwin together through this play. And you know it was a dream that I’d had for so long and I must say thanks to Bong Ramilo who really helped me bring it off.

Emere: Is there any plan for that play to be performed in the Philippines? We’d love to see it there.

You know what, Em, that was my original idea. My dream was to perform the play in Darwin and to take the play back, if not to Bohol, back to Manila. But the thing was, the cast included over 50 and touring it would be too huge. Plus a lot of the cast and crew were working day jobs and they weren’t full-time actors, though they gave so generously of their time - and it was just too hard. It’s still my dream to take that play to the Philippines.

Emere: I’m very fascinated about that and I do hope that your dream will come true and I would love to see a published copy of that play, to be honest, and I’ll make sure to ask around how we can do that.

Four, five people now have talked about my play in their theses. I provided them with loads of information. I still have the original script and the adapted one that I’ve done. And I’m going to take on your suggestion, Em, because if it is published then people can go ahead and do the play. But it is my dream to have that play on once again at least in Darwin. I haven’t let go of that dream to have it in the Philippines.

Emere: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure after waiting so long to finally meet you. Believe me I hope your dream will be a reality for all.

I hope I can make that dream come true. I want that, I really want that. And it’s been a pleasure.

Dee: A final question before you have to go, Gary. What else did Bong Ramilo do in relation to the play?

Bong was the artistic director, he organised all the instruments. I wanted original instruments from the Philippines. He organised all of that. He did all the hard work of writing up the grant applications and all that stuff. He encouraged me with the script. He was very encouraging, very helpful and in fact a couple of months after the play finished, he got a grant for myself and him and two other Aboriginal playwrights to go to a National Playwrights Conference in the Philippines. It was my first trip to the Philippines – to Manila.

Emere: Did you go to Bohol, to the Chocolate Hills?

I didn’t go to Bohol. But my next dream, other than getting the play on, is to put in for a grant to take someone with a video camera and go to Bohol. I want to rock up there and visit the rellies and to see where my great-grandfather is buried. The sad thing is, I was there for 15 days in Manila, I went to Baguio but didn’t get to Bohol. I want to go back. I love the Philippines so much. I loved every minute of it. I want to go back there.

Gary Lee