Theater therapy for widows, orphans of Duterte drug campaign

Eloisa Lopez

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Theater therapy for widows, orphans of Duterte drug campaign
The participants in the workshop are asked to narrate how their loved ones were killed over and over again until they can tell their stories without stuttering or wailing

MANILA, Philippines – It’s difficult enough for widows and orphans to remember the deaths of their loved ones. But to ask them to narrate their stories over and over again is simply brutal. 

These were the initial thoughts of Ellah (not her real name), mother of a fatality in the Duterte administration’s campaign against illegal drugs, when director Albert Saldajeno Jr asked her and other widows to narrate their grim stories repeatedly   until they could tell their stories this without stuttering or wailing.  He recorded their narration.

“It was hurtful and irritating,” Ellah said. “We had to do it over and over, even when my head and my heart were aching already from repeating the story.” 

For Saldajeno however, the task had to be done no matter how long it took. 

Saldajeno was tasked to give the widows and orphans a theater arts workshop – the culmination of the healing program of the bereaved families at the Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center in Manila.

In 3 days, he taught them about his craft, which resulted in a stage play on April 20 at La Salle Greehills in Mandaluyong City. The audience included Lasallian brothers, priests, relatives, and sympathizers.  

‘Killing me softly’ 

In a series of songs, dances, and skits, Ellah and some 40 other performers told the gradual rise to power of President Rodrigo Duterte, the beginning of his anti-drug campaign, and the tragedies that followed thereafter. 

Like the lives of many of the performers before the drug war, the play began with loud music and lots of dancing as a backdrop to the high hopes from Duterte’s campaign promises, and high expectations from the supposed change that was coming. 

The same widows and orphans played the role of Duterte’s supporters, dancing to the tune of OPM songs with banners that screamed “I love EJK,” “Duterte 4ever,” and “Change is coming.” 

In another scene, the men in the group took on the role of policemen who shot alleged suspects in cold blood, while others played their real-life roles as wailing mothers and distraught children in a crime scene. 

“We wanted it to be like killing me softly,”  Saldajeno said. “We wanted it to be gradual, for them [the audience] to feel it, examine it, to show that this is what happened from beginning to end.”

“By the end of the show, they will penetrate slowly into the soul and the system of the [audience],” he added.

Towards the end of the play, the recorded narrations of the widows and orphans were played as some of them reenacted how their loved ones were killed before their eyes, or were found dead in an unfamiliar place. It was a scene that hardly needed acting for many. 

Theater as therapy 

For Ellah, this was when the “brutal” narrations made sense. 

As she listened to her own voice, Ellah broke down as if she were in her son’s crime scene. But unlike her initial feelings towards it, Ellah found the performance “comforting,” even therapeutic.  

“When I saw how the audience cried as we cried in front of them, I felt like they were with me in my grief,” Ellah said. “Somehow, they felt what it’s like to lose a child.”

Since her son’s tragic death in October 2016, Ellah has been bottling up her heartaches as no one else in her family seemed to sympathize with her. When she once confided to her sister, she was only left even more hurt when she was told, “Your son was an addict anyway.”  

“I realized this was my chance to release,” Ellah said. “We needed that. This is our chance to say what really happened, to tell the other side of the story apart from what is in the news.” 

Indeed, the healing program in the Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center has given Ellah and fellow widows and orphans a new community apart from their own. 

For at least 5 months now, they have been going to the center, headed by Catholic priest Flavie Villanueva, for help that is given specifically for victims of the drug war.  

The program includes: food and health care, psycho-spiritual intervention, legal assistance, educational program, and livelihood and employment.

While the program culminated in the theater arts workshop, Villanueva told Rappler the families will still be performing in other La Salle schools in the coming months. For the meantime, a new batch of families will undergo the same program. 

A new purpose

Ellah told Rappler she has been able to speak her mind without fear of judgment from her newfound friends.

“Here, you can talk to anyone because everyone else is like you, everyone is a victim. You will not be blamed or judged,” she said.

In one scene in their performance, an inconsolable Ellah embraced a fellow widow Mariana (not her real name), whose husband and son were killed in a police operation in 2016. 

Mariana, 44, said activities like this give her and her kids a new sense of purpose.

Since her husband and son were killed, Mariana and her four children has been moving from one community to another in hopes of rebuilding a better, more peaceful life. But because they are haunted with threats, they have recently decided to settle under the care of a church group for assistance and safety. 

The price to pay for this is isolation. Often, Mariana told Rappler she and her children feel restrained. 

“Every day, it’s just me and my children inside our house. It gets lonely. We don’t have neighbors, we can’t go outside – it’s not a normal life.” 

“With activities like these, we are able to mingle with families like ours. We see other people, we do other things. It makes me happy.” 

The hardest part 

The performance was more than just another play for Saldajeno. 

Saldajeno, who has worked for decades in teaching theater and catechism in schools and parishes, said the workshop was just as brutal to him as it was to the families. 

He said he often held back tears whenever he firmly asked the widows and orphans to repeat their narrations if their voices trailed off, or they got too overwhelmed.

“It was hearbreaking. I had to be strong because it had to be done, but deep inside, my heart was breaking. I just did not show it,” Saldajeno told Rappler.

Saldajeno also said that he had difficulties introducing theater to the group as many of them had little to no knowledge about the craft.  

But once they learned the basics, he said the stage play easily turned from his masterpiece into theirs – 90% of the scenes were the families’ ideas, including the majority of its script.

After the play, he smiled with great relief and pride over the work of his “actors,” rating their performance as “good enough” for beginners. 

“At first, they thought it was bad that we were repeating their stories again and again,” Saldajeno said. “But If you don’t tell your story, it will appear in your dreams, it will come out as anger, it will transform into violence, or bad temper,” he said. 

“You have to say it, you have to release it. This is only the first step of healing.” –

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