A Hunger for History: A Study of Ma-Yi Theater Group's Project: Balangiga

Article excerpt

During the open forum held after each performance of the play Project: Balangiga by Ma-Yi Theater Company (New York City, August 2002), several young Filipino Americans profusely thanked the company for talking about the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). (1) These Filipino Americans, most of whom were college students, did not know much about the war, nor did they have an extensive knowledge of the history of colonization in the Philippines. Current studies in Filipino American history focus mainly on issues of migration, assimilation, and integration, rather than on the Philippines' colonial history. Thus, though they knew of the assimilation struggle of migrant farm workers, they were not aware of the struggle of the Filipinos in the Philippines against American imperialism.

Project: Balangiga, written by Ralph Pena and Sung Rno, satisfies their hunger for history, and, at the same time, interrogates Philippine-American relations. Using a documentary-style format, the play features actors of various ethnicities (Asian Americans and Caucasian) playing themselves as they narrate their investigation of the events surrounding the Balangiga massacre (2) and the succeeding controversy over the seizure of the Balangiga church bells. (3) Interwoven in the play are the actors' discussions on the processes of research and staging. This article discusses both the workshop production staged by Ma-Yi in August 2002 and Pena's and Rno's revised draft for a future full production of the play.

Although the actors playing actors in the play talk about objectivity, the play discards the myth of "benevolent assimilation" propagated by President McKinley in 1898 and implies a history of deceit and violence in America's occupation of the Philippines. Staged in New York, symbol of imperialist triumph, site of grief after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and "home" to many Filipino Americans, the play urges its Filipino American audience to confront possible contradictions in their appreciation of their ethnic/diasporic situation by understanding the colonial history of the homeland of their parents and grandparents. Furthermore, the play positions artists and writers as historians and activists who use theater both as a venue for discussion and as a weapon of protest. Their involvement in the play links them with theater artists and writers who participated in anti-colonial discourses in the Philippines, and American artists and writers who have continuously been involved in peace struggles.

Ma-Yi Theater Company, Its Audience, and Negotiation of Identity

The Ma-Yi Theater Company was established in 1989 by a group of former University of the Philippines (UP) students who were also members of the theater group UP Tropang Bodabil (later known as Peryante). (4) The name "Ma-Yi" comes from the ancient Chinese word for the islands now known as the Philippines. In its website and souvenir programs, the company explains that its mission statement includes the commitment to representing the Asian American experience and engaging communities in dialogue to take Asian American aesthetics beyond stereotypical markers. The company started by producing Filipino works first staged in the Philippines, but has since expanded its season's offerings to include new works by Asian American writers. Among the plays it has produced are: Chris Millado's peregriNasyon (1993 and 1997) on the parallel experiences of peasants and the Philippines and migrant farm workers in the United States in the 1930s; Ralph Pena's Flipzoids (1998) on Filipino American identity politics; and Sung Rno's Drizzle and Other Stories (2000), based on Korean short stories.

Why stage Project: Balangiga? There was, of course, the current controversy about the Balangiga bells, appropriated as war booty during the Philippine-American War. For the people of Cheyenne, Wyoming, where two of the bells are displayed, they are a symbol of the grief of the American people for the soldiers who lost their lives during the massacre in the town of Balangiga, Samar, in the central Philippines. …