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Ibarra the musical: Filipinos must not be silenced in the midst of injustices in society

My first encounter with Jose Rizal’s novels was during our high school years since these were required readings.

The book “Noli Me Tangere”, published in 1887 and written in Spanish, is a sweeping and passionate unmasking of the brutality and corruption of Spanish rule in the Philippines (1565–1898), which were seen as a disease of the society, thus the title, Latin for “touch me not”.

The story follows Crisostomo Ibarra, who went back home after his European studies. He rekindled his romance with childhood sweetheart Maria Clara but triggered an old rift with the town friar, Padre Damaso. 

As the story progressed, Ibarra realized that the malady of oppression and colonial brutality has been killing not only his town but his motherland as well.

Jomar Fleras was also still in high school in 1979 when he submitted an entry entitled “Kanser” to the playwriting contest of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) for the category of adaptation of the Filipino novel.  

He made the script for one month hoping that he will win the cash prize of P5,000.00 (US$100).

Fleras won for his piece which is now considered the longest-running theater classic in Philippine history.

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He said that  playwriting “is a way to dramatize the plight of our people as well as to use the power of theater in awakening them from apathy and complacency.”

In 1989, his entry El Fili also won in the same category.

Kanser had its world premiere in 1980 at the CCP staged by the theater group Bulwagang Gantimpala.

Due to the limited space of CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute, there was just a small ensemble in 1980 that included Tommy Abuel as Ibarra, Cora Alforja as Maria Clara, Susan Africa as Sisa, Johnny Delgado as Elias, Caloy Abrera as Pilosopong Tasyo, and Felindo Obac as Padre Damaso.

Crisostomo Ibarra was portrayed the longest by Tommy Abuel for almost ten years while other lead actors include Teroy de Guzman (1994), Ernie Garcia, Miguel Castro (2007), Allan Paule (2007, 2008), Jojo Riguerra (2008, 2011), Jao Mapa (2009), Randy Villarama (2010),  Jay Gonzaga (2011, 2012, 2013), Joel Molina (2014, 2017), Michael Pangilinan (2015), Carlo Manalac (2016), Jacob Benedicto (2015), Vance Larena (2018), Kiel Alo (2019), and Piolo  Pascual (2023).

Maria Clara was played by Cora Alforja (1980), Cherrie Pie Picache (1994), Adriana Agcaoili (1999, 2000),  Monica Llamas (2007), Fame Flores (2008, 2009), Meliza Reyes (2009, 2010),   Ellrica Laguardia (2013), CJ Mangahis (2013), Cris Pastor (2011, 2012, 2014), KL Dizon (2016), Dea Formacil (2017), Andrea Manuel (2018), Rare Jireh Columna (2019), and Myramae Meneses (2015, 2023).

CCP was its home from 1980 to 1986. After the EDSA people power, it was shown in different venues like the Metropolitan Theater, Luneta Theater, AFP Theater, ALIW Theater, SM, and various schools.

In 2015, it became a full-blast musical adaptation by Gantimpala Theater with music composed by Joed Balsamo. There were only three songs in the 1980 version.

The 2023 production at the GSIS theatre from June 8 to June 18 by Tanghalang Una Obra and directed by Frannie Zamora will be the 40th year staging that coincided with the celebration of the 125th year of Philippine independence.

For the first time, the Manila Symphony Orchestra provided a live accompaniment.

Fleras explained that “Kanser” was retitled into “Ibarra”  so that the younger generation will associate more the play with the iconic character of Crisostomo Ibarra than the meaning of Noli Me Tangere (The Social Cancer).

It is also to accentuate Pascual’s role as Ibarra whom Fleras described as someone who metamorphosed into a professional stage musical actor.

“This is a wake-up call for me to do something for the country. To be able to use my voice as a platform to remind people of our right to freedom of speech, our right to our culture, our independence, is one way of using my influence to attract more people to know about what we can do so that we can help each other. We can rise up,” Pascual said in an interview.

According to historian Xiao Chua, some have suggested that Rizal was a misogynist in his portrayal of women.

All his women characters were undesirable: Doña Consolacion was cruel; Doña Victorina epitomized colonial mentality; Sisa was too weak she became mad; and what people think as the symbol of the Philippines and the Filipino woman, Maria Clara, was actually a weak and treacherous woman. Maria Clara did not fight for her love and gave away to Padre Salvi her lover’s letters, which were used to implicate him in a revolt.

Nicole Asensio plays Sisa. Her grandmother, national artist Fides Cuyugan Asensio, played  Sisa in Felipe de Leon’s Noli me Tangere in 1957 while pregnant with Nicole’s father who was subsequently named Noli.

Kanser has evolved through the years but the message remains solid – Filipinos must not be silenced in the midst of ills and injustices in society.

Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail [email protected], or call 09175025808 or 09088665786

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