Philippine theater

Boni Ilagan and Joel Lamangan on ‘Spirit of the Glass’: Pushing back hard on red-tagging

Lé Baltar

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Boni Ilagan and Joel Lamangan on ‘Spirit of the Glass’: Pushing back hard on red-tagging
The show tracks the lives of two college instructors seeking shelter in a friend’s ancestral home, after being red-tagged and harassed by state forces because of their book manuscripts

“The idea for the play started to brew when the Komisyon [sa] Wikang Filipino came up with that ridiculous act of banning books in their inventory that were written by some of the best authors we have. That was in 2022,” Boni Ilagan tells Rappler, when asked about Spirit of the Glass, the latest play he has written, set to run this March 8-10 at the University of the Philippines-Diliman IBG-KAL Theater.

“My actual writing, however, started in 2023 when the National Commission for Culture and the Arts announced that it was accepting proposals for theater productions that would tackle, among others, the implications of the Anti-Terror Act on society. I wrote intermittently because of commitments. But all told, I must have spent a month doing the first draft. The rewriting took longer,” Ilagan adds.

Directed by Joel Lamangan and produced by Tag-ani Performing Arts Society, the show tracks the lives of two college instructors seeking shelter in a friend’s ancestral home, after being red-tagged and harassed by state forces because of their book manuscripts, which are supposedly slated for publication.

I spoke to Ilagan and Lamangan via email and Zoom about Spirit of the Glass, the state of human rights in the country, and what we could do to protect creatives producing critical art. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The play is about two college instructors red-tagged and harassed by state forces. How important is it that we continue to stage stories like this, given the human rights situation under the current government?

Boni Ilagan: It is absolutely important to push back hard on red-tagging and all human rights violations, especially given the gravity of state terrorism by way of weaponizing laws and outright brute force. It becomes all the more imperative that artists create protest works and join in the mass movement to uphold dissent and the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution. 

Joel Lamangan: It is very important because red-tagging is a means of identifying or calling people names without proper investigation, restriction of what they are doing, especially political moves, especially political plays, especially cultural expressions that would say the truth about what is happening. If you do that, you are being red-tagged and that is bad. Red-tagging is bad. Red-tagging is putting people on the spot. I mean, accusing people of things that they say they do, but they are not. They are just exposing truths. They are just saying what must be said.

Recently, both of you worked on ‘Oras de Peligro.’ How is it doing another project with each other?

Boni Ilagan: People might think that Direk Joel and I are always in agreement as we collaborate on a project, simply because we’ve gone through the same experience and continue to share the same politics. Even as we were both activists and political prisoners in the 1970s, he could come on strong on some points about which I differ. He has a way of picking one’s brain that pushes the person to think, “Teka muna, talaga bang ganoon ka-mali ang sinulat ko (Wait a second, was what I wrote really that wrong)?” We disagree a lot, not on the intention, but on the effect. Still, I know what he is after, which is the good of a project on whose outcome we both rise or fall. At the end of the day, however, we try our best to reach a common ground. 

Joel Lamangan: It’s always an honor to be working on a Boni Ilagan script because he always says something about what is happening in the country. It’s always about injustice. It’s always about oppression and things like [that]. So it’s an honor and privilege to do it, whether it’s a play, a film, or a television show. 

After reading the material, is there any difference in how you approach it as a director? 

Joel Lamangan: A play is a totally different medium. It has its own discipline. It’s totally different. I started in theater. Then I went to television and film. Theater for me is more interesting to do, though less ang mga nakakapanood nito (fewer people get to watch it). It is more powerful. You can say anything. In film, you have the MTRCB to confront. If the state thinks that what you did is a security risk, you have the MTRCB to confront. You have the government to confront. In [a] play, there’s nothing like that. You can say anything you like, expose anything you like. And that for me is a privilege. In this play, the actors are very good. I picked them up. I have worked with them before. And I think they can deliver what Boni Ilagan would like to deliver for them.

How are the rehearsals?

Joel Lamangan: Smooth naman ang takbo ng rehearsals namin (The rehearsals are going smoothly). Everything is provided for. We are being given what we need. Smooth, from the actors, to the staff, to the people behind the scenes, to the stage management, to the production management, everything runs smoothly.

We know how fragile the current time is when it comes to preserving and defending history, so what do you hope for the audience to get from this staging?

Boni Ilagan: I hope to impart to the audience a perspective on history and its lessons from the lived struggles of our people, not academic but definitely personal, something that springs from the heart and exudes feelings of fear, anger, defiance, love, and that which could connect with their own humanity.  

Joel Lamangan: Well, the audience will get that there are people na nire-red-tag (who are being red-tagged) as of now. As a matter of fact, this is more recent, about the novels that were red-tagged by the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino. The audience will know na meron [nang red-tagging] noon (that there used to be red-tagging before), and they will know how to confront it. They will now know [it from] the other side, rather than the side only of the government saying [that] red-tagging is good. 

How do you think we can continue to protect artists, especially those who produce critical works, against threats from state forces? 

Boni Ilagan: I think the first line of defense of artists is their art and their perseverance in creating truthful art for the people no matter the situation. If they falter in creating, then they lose their momentum as well as their position of strength. Everybody else could help protect them by supporting their works and letting it be known that people’s artists have the people’s patronage.  

Joel Lamangan: I have been in this business for so long. I have been in this struggle for so long. I have been doing this since the ’70s — directing plays [and] movies. Now, you can only protect yourself if you are the ones creating it. By really creating the truth. I mean, by telling the truth. If the [state] forces would be against you, there will be some people that will help you in expressing what you would like to express. Sad to know na malakas ang fascism sa bayan na ito. Malakas ang hindrance sa mga artist na gawin nila ang gusto nilang gawin, lalo na ang totoo.

(Sad to know that fascism abounds in this country. Artists are very much hindered from doing what they want to do, especially if the work is truthful.) 

Nagkakaroon ng isyu kung ano ba ang totoo (What is true an what isn’t has become an issue). The real artist who talks about an issue in their work should serve the interests of many, not just a few. There are several truths around. You just have to pick and choose the truth that you would like to say in any medium of artistic expression, whether it’s film, theater, visual arts, dance, or music. There are truths around you and you can make use of this artistic expression to tell the truth of what is happening in the country. Sad to know, maraming hindi magandang nangyayari kaya ‘yun ang lumalabas sa lahat ng artistic expression (a lot of ugly things are happening, and that’s what’s being reflected in our artistic expression). –

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.