activist groups in PH

Teatro Balagtas brings struggle for social justice on stage

Mari-An C. Santos

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Teatro Balagtas brings struggle for social justice on stage

MASS ACTION. Teatro Balagtas performs an excerpt of Bitan in Luneta during an anti-Duterte protest in 2017.

courtesy of Teatro Balagtas

The community theater group, which was among the first to tackle extra-judicial killings head-on in their plays during the Duterte administration, continues to pursue social issues on stage

MANILA, Philippines – Teatro Balagtas, a Manila-based community theater group, remains steadfast in its mission to confront different social issues through its performances.

The group was among the first to tackle extra-judicial killings head-on in their plays during the Duterte administration.

“It has yet to be resolved because our system is slow. The families of the victims still haven’t gotten justice. It caused deep trauma for the survivors and everyone,” Alvin Astudillo, one of the founding members of Teatro Balagtas, said about extrajudicial killings.

LEGACY. Members of Teatro Balagtas perform different stories for their Mga Kuwento ni Lolo Sixto series annually.

The group continues to pursue other social issues in their plays based on their experiences.

Established in 2008, Teatro Balagtas is a Manila-based community theater group named after bard Francisco Balagtas, who lived in this district where he fell in love with Selya, the muse of his greatest work “Florante at Laura” – a touchstone of Philippine literature.

The late activist Sixto Carlos Jr. founded Teatro Balagtas. “He had dreamed of establishing a theater group for disadvantaged youth in his hometown (Pandacan) and naming it after the poet. He was able to fulfill it after he retired,” said Jessie Villabrille, Teatro Balagtas’ co-founder and creative director.

Brave resistance

Like most of Teatro Balagtas’ plays, Villabrille is the writer of “Bitan,” the opus tackling extra-judicial killings, which they performed from 2016 to 2017. 

He drew inspiration from conversations with a journalist friend who covered the police beat for a popular broadsheet and from the experiences of some Teatro Balagtas members, the youngest of whom awoke to gunshots that killed her grandfather while they slumbered in their tiny home in the middle of the night.

The title is the South Korean word for lamentation. The story draws a parallel between Korean pop culture and how the killings were becoming an acceptable part of Philippine culture.

“Our worst enemies are apathy and cynicism – as if it was okay that so many people were dying every night,” Villabrille said.

The play revolves around a family of coffin makers in Pampanga and reflects upon “how death exacts a toll on some [in terms of human lives] but also enriches others’ pockets in the process,” Villabrille said.

He recalls how, while they were co-writing a song for the play, one lyric kept changing because the death toll was rapidly rising.

“At first, it was ‘8,000’ but after changing it a few times, we decided to go with ‘libu-libong’ (thousands), because we couldn’t update the figures fast enough to reflect reality,” Villabrille said.

They performed the two-hour, emotionally and logistically intensive play only once for an audience of the group’s family and friends at the Santo Nino Parish in 2016. After that, it took on various forms. 

They performed a 45-minute excerpt at the Liwasang Balagtas (Balagtas Park), some musical numbers during a protest rally at Luneta, and at the invitation of various human rights groups in different venues.

After Reuters’ report on the excerpt performance was published, they started getting trolled online, with accusations that they were being paid P100,000 each to spread lies and with various threats. None of the threats were carried out, but it did disturb the members’ peace.  

At the close of 2017, they performed original music from the play online. “Mabuhay Concert” was the first ever online concert to celebrate life and human rights, pre-dating the COVID-19 pandemic. They have not performed “Bitan” since. 

“In community theater, you always explore new material,” said Villabrille. “So each year, we stage different productions, mostly geared toward children.” 

COMMUNITY THEATER. Teatro Balagtas members perform for neighbors and guests at the Liwasang Balagtas in Pandacan. courtesy of Teatro Balagtas
Advocacy and education

In April 2019, they adapted Rene Villanueva’s “Ang Tatlong Haragan” into an original musical, calling to save Manila’s Arroceros Forest – the “last lung of Manila” – from being converted into a mere park.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the group transitioned to video and online, producing human rights-themed short films “Quiz Bill” and “Zombebe” in cooperation with ATD Fourth World Philippines on the occasion of the International Day to Overcome Extreme Poverty in 2021. 

The following year, during the same observance, they returned to the stage for “Ako ay Sino,” combining theater of the absurd and theater of the oppressed to lead audiences to introspection about people living in abject poverty.

Keeping the faith

Since Carlos’ passing in September 2021, the group has struggled to find its footing.

Last year, they staged the PG-16 play “Ang Kuwento ni Babae” on gender-based violence with support from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific. They are re-staging it this year.

To keep Carlos’ memory alive, they have tweaked their “Mga Kuwento ni Kiko” series of plays, which they used to adapt from Filipino children’s stories, to “Mga Kuwento ni Lolo Sixto.” The plays were co-written by TB members based on lessons that Carlos imparted over the years.  

“Apart from performance workshops, we ensure that our members receive education on human rights and other important socio-civic issues. We are motivated to continue to keep Teatro Balagtas rooted in the community, just as our founder envisioned,” Villabrille said.

Though they struggle to find sources of funding, Teatro Balagtas soldiers on, knowing they serve a purpose beyond simply performing in front of audiences. –

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