In an artform where happiness and pure, unadulterated bliss often take center stage, Anak Datu goes where plays most often dare to not venture: bitter truths, buried secrets, and bold retellings of a history that celebrates and laments the magic and misery of Muslim Mindanao.

Playwright Rody Vera’s take on National Artist Abdulmari Imao’s short story of the same name doesn’t shy away from tackling difficult political topics. Revolving around the Muslim people’s struggles that began decades before Imao’s story was written, Anak Datu unwinds itself into three overarching narratives.

Jibin Arula’s suffering. Abdulmari Imao’s struggles. And Anak Datu’s survival. The stories share 90 minutes of vibrant revelations that our decades-long history lessons in class buried by omission.

Jibin Arula endures

Anak Datu

Gie Onida portrays the weathered and worn Jibin Arula, survivor of the 1968 Jabidah Massacre that sparked Moro insurgency in the Philippines.

His chapters in the play see Onida recounting Arula’s entire story, beginning as a young trainee (young Jibin is brought to life onstage by actor Mark Lorenz) recruited by Ferdinand Marcos to bring civil war in Sabah, and ending as a blood-soaked war figure torn between moving on from conflict and honoring the lives of the allies he had lost.

The play’s retelling of Jibin Arula’s losses is gut-wrenching, showcasing his friends’ massacre in the hands of the Marcoses (which ended the lives of 68 people), reenacting his miles-long escape through Manila Bay, and the alliance he had made with Cavite’s then-governor Delfin Montano to reach an unreachable sense of justice.

Onida’s cautious interpretation of an iconic figure in Muslim Mindanao shows the man’s complex nature not often included in talks about war and conflict. Arula’s humanity is distinctly front-and-center in the actor’s muted but loud movements.

Arula’s chapters are backed by pristine choreography and set design, but its most important element–its narrative–steals the spotlight due to its characteristics: a palpable thread of truth disguised (or brushed off?) as fiction.

Perhaps it’s due to Tanghalang Pilipino’s audience, an ocean of northerners, that its revelations are extremely effective and shocking. Still, Vera’s bravery in exposing half-myths as actual history is admirable and fierce, and the viewers are left with the fact that what they know about Muslim injustices are just a fraction of what they really go through.

A love letter to Abdulmari Imao

A third of the play is dedicated to Abdulmari Imao (played by Paul Jake Paule), who struggles to incorporate himself outside of his home while he tries to balance being an artist and a father in a half-Christian, half-Muslim home.

His wife, Grace (Toni Go-Yadao), pushes him into raising their son, Toym, as a child open to the ugly truth of the Marcos regime. Abdulmari wrestles with the realization that peace of mind will not come by trying to hide the government’s atrocities from his child.

As much as Abdulmari’s story is his own, it is also Toym’s: his reservations mirror his son’s eagerness, his maturity flanks his child’s youth, and their clashing ideals push them to be the perfect image of a household whose cornerstone is its mix of cultures.

The real-life Toym Imao serves as the play’s set designer, and so much of his late father’s artistic approaches are celebrated throughout it. Filigreeing okir structures and sarimanok artworks are present all throughout the play, as if Abdulmari himself was letting his presence known. Toym’s homages to his father’s craft extend their story in a poignant manner, letting Abdulmari’s chapter’s lessons bleed into the rest of the production.

A story within a story

The play’s final piece of the puzzle is its namesake. The story of Anak Datu revolves around the love story between Datu Karim (Hassanain Magarang) and Putli Loling (Tex Ordoñez-de Leon), and the struggles they have to face when the former is allegedly killed by a band of pirates let by Jikiran (Ramli Abdulrahim). Their son, Karim (Carlos Dala’s second role), grows up and has to both honor his reformed step-father’s dying words and his blood parent’s legacy.

Anak Datu differentiates vengeance from justice, and it presents what dangers lie for those who choose to be blinded by either. Karim’s coming-of-age is a metaphorical call to action for people who were born out of hate; it calls to end ceaseless violence, but it also urges everyone to stand up for peace’s legacy.

Karim’s complex birth and rebirth mimic the rise of the Moro National Liberation Front in Mindanao, a necessary arrival in a world full of conflict and deception. It also extends itself towards Toym in the other story, making him aware of the real-life struggles Muslim Filipinos endure because of the Marcoses’ insidious greed. The impact of art in revolution culminates into the young child asking his mother, “para umiwas sa kamatayan, kailangan natin tumahimik?”

Remembering what matters

Toym’s question encapsulates the hardships Pinoys have gone through–and still do to this day.

Anak Datu celebrates the beauty of Muslim culture with its wonderful depictions of mosques, countrysides, and tapestries, all of which are gilded with gold and grace. But where Toym Imao and costume designer Carlo Villafuerte Pagunaling succeed with beauty, they also underline with bitter truths: their mosques are the sights of genocide, their countrysides are fertilized with blood, and their tapestries are soaked in a stain of red and black.

To the uninitiated, the story’s villains sound cartoonishly vile to the point where they feel like unrealistic caricatures. Unfortunately, this makes the truth even scarier; the evils that pushed Muslims in the country toward civil war are real and still alive…and they have gotten away with all of their wrongdoings.

The world is unfair to those who have been wronged. For Anak Datu’s characters, and the Philippines’ real-life war victims, remembering to live with a strong sense of identity and pride is enough to keep them afloat. The idea that good will prevail in the long run is partnered with the notion that evil is bound to get its comeuppance someday.

Where Anak Datu stands

Anak Datu thrives in presenting a rich history lesson through dance and song, sewing choreographer Hassanain Magarang’s poetry in motion together with musical director Josefino Chino Toledo’s vibrant verses. The latter’s subtle pop culture references (think Voltes V and 80s TV propaganda) are mixed with a flurry of unapologetically southern imagery, and the appreciation for the Muslim people’s culture is always at the forefront of the play.

The way that the three stories were told all at once was quite confusing, especially in the beginning. Anak Datu’s team opted to present the story in an oft-disjointed and confusing pace, but its subtle nudges to let its viewers catch up to the chapters were enough to set its tales on its own lanes without completely compromising their narrative flow.

The first half blooms through retellings of seemingly ancient wars, and the second hits its younger audiences with old yet relatable unrest: media censorship, brainwashing propaganda, and the villainization of misunderstood minorities. It never strays far from its inner themes, and each of its ten scenes were given enough room to evoke horror, hope, hatred, and happiness.

As the end is signaled by the cast doing the Muslim tradition of throwing rocks to ward off evil, you can’t help but marvel at the unapologetic portrayal of Muslim culture in our theaters. In an age of fear-mongering and growing unfounded islamophobia, Anak Datu dares to present its people’s stories with unbridled pride and ambition. Its colorful showcase is the fruit of a dark past, and it succeeds in promoting hope for an undivided future. 4/5

Click here for more stories like “Anak Datu”. You may also follow and subscribe to our social media accounts: FacebookYouTubeInstagramTikTokTwitter, and Kumu.