The play that takes you to a scene of a tokhang raid

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‘Sa Digma ng Halimaw’ is a documentary play that is told from the perspectives of relatives of drug war victims. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Ito po ‘yung anak ko, si Aldrin. Two hundred eighteen days na po na hindi ko siya kasama,” says Nanette Castillo, pointing to a photo of her son that hangs from her neck, bearing the words “JUSTICE FOR ALDRIN CASTILLO.” She stands in the middle of a makeshift set — a square in the center of a room that is cordoned off by police tape, which also snakes around a wall of cemetery niches. We, in the audience, sit on either side of the scene.

Castillo is one of the three women that currently make up the “cast” of the documentary play “Sa Digma ng Halimaw,” which puts audiences right on the scene of the administration’s war on drugs through monologues written from the perspectives of the victims’ relatives. In this iteration, we follow the stories of Castillo and Normita Lopez as they recount the days they lost their sons, and “Kim,” who lost both her mother and father on the same day.

But Castillo is not an actor; neither is Lopez. The only actor here is Cristina Diego Ponce, who reenacts Kim’s story based word for word off of an interview transcript. The nature of the production — run entirely by volunteers who have day jobs, and with no dedicated venue for performances — means that pulling off a show requires some improvisation. The actor meant to give Castillo’s monologue couldn’t make it to tonight’s show, so she does it herself.

Photo-19.jpg Nanette Castillo recounts the day she lost her son, Aldrin, who was shot five times by masked men on motorcycles. Photo by JL JAVIER

Castillo and Lopez are just two of the many relatives of drug war victims that have partnered with Rise Up for Life and for Rights, a network of advocates and families affected by the drug war. It was at a Rise Up event that “Sa Digma” director Edwin Quinsayas of Sining Kadamay (SIKAD), an organization that advocates for the rights of the urban poor through art, met the two.

“Iniisip na namin talaga na kailangan nating i-reflect [ang programa ni Duterte na tokhang] sa isang pagtatanghal at kailangan dalhin talaga sa komunidad,” says Quinsayas in a sit-down interview. “Habang ‘yung mga maralita mismo ang pinapatay, marami ding seksyon sa bahagi ng maralita ang pumupuri at sumusuporta [sa giyera kontra droga].”

“Nang nakilala ko na ‘yung mga nanay [ng Rise Up], immediately I took interest. Sabi ko, ito na ‘yung pagkakataon,” he adds.   

Photo-18.jpg Normita Lopez, who lost her son Djastin in a police operation, reads a personal poem entitled “Anak sa Sinapupunan ng Isang Ina.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Tanghalang Mulong Sandoval, the performance arm of SIKAD, then studied the style of documentary theatre, which they decided was the best format for these stories. They interviewed members of Rise Up and restructured the transcripts into a narrative composed of several 20- to 30-minute monologues.

“Pero lahat ng ‘yun, ng nasa script, ‘yun ‘yung eksantong salita [ng mga kaanak ng biktima],” says Quinsayas.

Lopez, whose epileptic son, Djastin, was killed on a railroad track during a police operation, is the only one whose story had not been developed for an actor to perform. Instead, they invited her to deliver the monologue herself as “the ultimate expression of documentary theater.”

“Kasi ‘yung iba [sinasabi na] ‘hindi, kwento lang ‘yan, sila lang may gawa niyan,’” she tells me. “Kaya naisama ako sa palabas. Para malaman nila na totoo talaga [kami]. Na hindi ito gawa-gawa lang.”

During her monologue, Lopez tells of how Djastin begged for mercy and how, despite suffering a seizure during the raid, he was shot and killed. Then through tears, Lopez reads a heart-wrenching poem that she penned herself. It is difficult to imagine what it must be like to relive your son’s death over and over again in front of so many people.

Photo-9.jpg Cristina Diego Ponce interprets the story of "Kim," a teen who lost both her parents in one night during an operation. Photo by JL JAVIER

Photo-4.jpg At times during the play, Ponce’s body is puppeteered by a masked man, setting her up for an all too familiar scene. Photo by JL JAVIER

Photo-14.jpg “Hindi ko alam saan ako iiyak nung mga time na ‘yun, ” cries Ponce. “Hindi ko alam kung sa nanay ko o sa tatay ko. Sa gitna na lang ako humiga, sa sahig, hinawakan ko ‘yung dalawa.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Though, in comparison to Castillo and Lopez, actress Ponce is merely interpreting Kim’s story rather than reliving it, her performance also requires a massive effort. She is frantic as she darts from every corner of the set searching for her parents who were taken away by men and later found dead in different locations. At times, Ponce’s body is puppeteered by a masked man, setting her up for an all too familiar scene, while at others it is pulled by invisible forces, contorting and writhing in frightening ways. She drops to the floor and cries, “Hindi ko alam saan ako iiyak nung mga time na ‘yun. Hindi ko alam kung sa nanay ko o sa tatay ko. Sa gitna na lang ako humiga, sa sahig, hinawakan ko ‘yung dalawa.”

Each performance is so visceral that for a moment you forget where you are, that you almost feel as if you’re sitting right at the scene. And for the rest of this year’s stagings that becomes more than a feeling, as SIKAD plans on taking the show right to the very communities that have experienced these atrocities.

Last Nov. 25, the show was staged at Sitio San Roque in Quezon City, a community that is currently under threat of demolition by developers, and that has seen its own share of anti-drug operations. On Nov. 27, the play was taken to Pandi, Bulacan, where several people were killed in police operations in the last few months.

Photo-16.jpg Each performance is so visceral that for a moment you forget where you are, that you almost feel as if you’re sitting right at the scene. Photo by JL JAVIER

Photo-23.jpg Director Edwin Quinsayas says that the play will be showed at urban poor communities first this year because they want to inspire the people living there to speak up. “[Gusto namin] magpakita ng ehemplo ng mga pamilya, mga nanay, mga kababaihan, na napapangibabawan ‘yung takot at gustong magsalita.” Photo by JL JAVIER

“Plano talaga namin ilibot siya sa mga urban poor communities,” says Quinsayas. At first, I find it odd to bring the play to people who’ve already had similar experiences. But before I even get to ask why they don’t take the play to those who may not even be able to imagine such an experience, Quinsayas explains that their main objective this year is to inspire those from urban poor communities to speak up.

“Marami na rin naman talagang [mga maralita na] tumutunggali [sa war on drugs] pero ... takot,” he says. “Gusto muna naming dalhin talaga siya sa mga poor communities at magpakita ng ehemplo ng mga pamilya, mga nanay, mga kababaihan, na napapangibabawan ‘yung takot at gustong magsalita. Para maengganyo ‘yung mga tao sa komunidad na magsalita talaga at lumikha ng isang mass movement.”

Quinsayas also says that, by next year, while they are doing these community performances, they also want to stage it in universities in order to tap the youth. The group hopes that through these performances, audiences, especially supporters of the drug war, will realize that the victims are more than just the stereotypical “adik” — that these are sons, fathers, breadwinners, people with hopes and dreams for a better life, who don’t deserve to be killed whether or not they commit vices. Such as in the case of Aldrin Castillo, whose mother admits he was once a drug user, but had planned to move to Saudi to forge a new life. He was killed two months before his flight.

Photo-24.jpg Towards the end of the play, Cristina Diego Ponce, Nanette Castillo, and Normita Lopez pass around pieces of paper bearing names of those killed during the war on drugs, encouraging the audience to join their call for justice. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Gusto kong madurog sa mga sinsabi [ng mga trolls] na ‘adik ka kasi, adik din ‘yung anak mo, wala namang kwenta ‘yang anak mo,’” says Nanette Castillo in her monologue, her voice unfaltering. “Hindi nila kami kilala. Sana kilalanin nila bawat pamilya.”

“Kung nagkamali man, kung nag-bisyo man, sana tinignan nila anong dahilan. Bakit sila nag-bibisyo, bakit sila nagbebenta ng shabu?” she shouts, her anger permeating the room with every heartbreaking plea. “Bakit gumagamit ng shabu? Sana binigyan ng tulong! Hindi bala dapat ibigay!”

Castillo passes around pieces of paper that list a few names of drug war victims. “Pinapanawagan ko lang po ‘yung pag-unawa ng mga tao, pag-damay,” she says. She asks the audience to read each name aloud, to call for justice. “Sisimulan ko,” she says, “Aldrin Castillo!” The room erupts in a cacophony of voices.  

It is at this moment that I find it impossible to hold back tears, and I cannot utter a single name from the list in my hands. Moments later and the room is silent. This marks the end of the play, and for a while I’m relieved. But then I remember that for those who live in places under fire, for the likes of Lopez and Castillo, and for the very communities that will watch this play, there is no such relief.


Visit “Sa Digma ng Halimaw” on Facebook for show dates and announcements.