MANILA, Philippines – Don’t let the name of the play, or its hilarious script, fool you – the Philippine Educational Theater Association’s upcoming play Charot! may be a comedy, but it takes the conversation on federalism very seriously.
PETA has made a habit of taking a serious political theme and turning it into a story that young people, so vulnerable to ignorance as they are, can digest. Going political is, after all, part of PETA’s DNA, as artistic director Maribel Legarda puts it.
In 2017, for instance, PETA staged Game of Trolls, a musical that wraps martial law and political corruption in words and humor that millennials can understand, with the hope of educating them and encouraging them to take a stand.
In 2019, the theater company turns the spotlight on charter change, federalism, and, in a stroke of perfect timing, voting. In true PETA fashion, they talk about these issues in a way that millennials and younger generations won’t be repelled by. The new play’s title says it all: Charot! – a term that peppers many millennial conversations, particularly when they’re making light of things that are difficult to digest.
Charot! is PETA’s 51st theater season ender. At the same time, it also kickstarts the company’s Stage of the Nation campaign, where they start discussions on socially and politically relevant issues via the arts.
The play is set in the country of PI, where a bunch of hopeful citizens make their way to the precincts to cast their votes for or against a new charter that would establish federalism.
In a moment all too familiar to Manila commuters, the PI citizens get stuck in a gridlock on the road, and become victims of Murphy’s Law as floods and potential electrocution force them together as they wait to be evacuated.
While they wait, the motley group – which includes everyone from a rich tita, a contractual worker at a big department store, a jeepney driver, and an influencer vlogging her first time to vote – hilariously debate over federalism and talk about how their votes matter.
At some point, the audience gets to join in on the fun via interactive presentation app Mentimeter, and the choices they make have some sort of bearing on the outcome of the play – kind of like Bandersnatch, but for theater.
The play has all the elements that will entertain and, more importantly, engage young people: interactivity, music, topical humor, and characters that are both archetypal and authentic.
The production has yet to hit the stage, but it’s already done its part, educating and enlightening the youth – particularly, the young people that worked on it, and there are a lot of them – the play was written by two young writers J-mee Katanyag and Michelle Ngu, and the cast is made up mostly of young actors.
The writers, of course, had to take a deep dive into federalism, and look at the issue beyond their own biases, examining both the pros and the cons to come up with a play that was unbiased.
“We studied federalism, more than if it was a con, we studied its pros…. Many Filipinos may see how federalism is good in essence, but as writers, we need to examine how the dynamics will change when put within the Philippine context,” J-mee said in Filipino at the play’s press preview.
Even the actors took a crash course on federalism.
“It was very enlightening to study about it because there are actual millennials who are my age or even younger than me who really believe that federalism is a good thing and even if I have my own bias regarding it, because I’m playing this character, I have to look for these people and find the truth and the heart in why they think that way,” Teetin Villanueva, who plays Millennial Girl, said in a mix of English and Filipino.
At the same time, CJ Navato, who plays Millennial Boy, said that working on the play made him realize how important it was to get involved especially because he was playing a character that was indifferent and resigned to a broken system.
“It was enlightening to be part of a play like this because it begs me to push myself to think about the government, to think about the country,” he said in English and Filipino.
According to Maribel, it was important for those involved in the production to know about the subject, because they want viewers to make an informed choice when they decide how they feel about federalism.
“Federalism needs to be critically read, studied, and understood, so that people, even the actors and audience members, won’t just make a choice because someoen said so, or because they were paid. What we want is critical, so we ourselves had to understand it before we talked about it,” she said in Filipino.
An informed choice is hopefully what the audience makes, when the play turns the vote over to them. Whether they decide in favor of federalism or not will influence the way the play turns out – a mirror of how the votes we cast as citizens influence what happens in the country.