Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Some traumas are so severe that, though the mind tries to forget, the feeling always remains. Memories become hazy and details are forgotten, but sometimes out of nowhere, like a dam breaking, they come flooding in. For Maria Rosa Luna Henson, a radio announcement in 1992 brought forth the thundering jackboots, the prison devoid of sunlight, and the daily wails of six other women that she had tried to forget for nearly 50 years.
Henson is the subject of U.P. Playwrights’ Theatre’s “Nana Rosa,” which tells her story as the first Filipino comfort woman to speak publicly about her ordeal: nine months of sexual slavery at the hands of Imperial Japanese soldiers during World War II. When former comfort woman Kim Hak-sun of South Korea came forward with her story at a press conference in 1991, the event prompted a group of women to form the Task Force on Filipina Comfort Women, which appealed to several radio programs to broadcast their search for anyone with similar experience. The play follows the Task Force as they visit Henson’s past life.
Based on Henson’s autobiography, “Comfort Woman: Slave of Destiny,” and pages from her diary, playwright Rody Vera and director José Estrella create a show built on and propelled by Nana Rosa’s memories. Out of the darkness emerge the ghosts from her past — her parents; the nameless, faceless figures that defiled her each night; the women whose names, even speaking voices, she had never heard — all this while Rosa Henson (played alternately by Peewee O’Hara and Upeng Galang Fernandez) stands onstage, spotlight shone overhead, as if engulfed by her recollections.
“Sabi ni nanay, ‘Kapag muling binigkas, muling nagkakatotoo. Kaya sa isip ko lang binibigkas,” says O’Hara with a trembling voice. Pages from Henson’s diary are projected onstage, and she frequently revisits her writing table where, as soon as the pen hits the paper, the memories begin to unravel.
I am usually averse to violent portrayals of abuse and victimization of women in art and media, but to censor or downplay any part of Henson’s story is to look away from a truth that cannot and should not be denied. In the end, it is difficult to tell what is more disturbing — seeing the atrocities Henson experienced as a sex slave, or realizing the immense strength it must take to carry these horrors in your mind, with not a soul to confide in.
Punctuating Henson’s confessionals are scenes of the Task Force preparing to fight for the comfort women of the country, along with projections of current events from newspaper clippings. Here, the production balances the haziness of the past and the immediacy and responsibility of facing the present.
“Nana Rosa” was originally written as a screenplay by screenwriter and playwright Rody Vera, but it was adapted into a play upon the request of his frequent collaborator, director José Estrella and the U.P. Playwrights’ Theatre.
According to dramaturg Ina Azarcon-Bolivar, choosing “Nana Rosa” to open the 27th season of the U.P. Playwrights’ Theatre “felt right” not only because 2019 marks the 80th year since the declaration of World War II, but because she feels there is currently “an air of forgetting history.”
“Nana Rosa's story was told when I was young, but then over the years, sometimes when you ask the youth, ‘Do you know the story of the comfort woman?’ A lot of them have a vague idea of what a comfort woman is … but then … they don't know the atrocities that these women went through,” she says. “We're always calling for, ‘Let's never forget history, let's never forget the bad things that happened in the past. We can't let that happen again.’”
This makes a lot of sense, as now, more than ever, we are living in a post-truth era where people in power are attempting to change and control the narrative of our times. And for Henson, as well as all the other women who have suffered at the hands of men wielding their power and privilege over them, strength lies not only in one’s ability to endure the trauma, but in the act of remembering.
“Nana Rosa” does not end on such a hopeless note, nor does the story of the Filipino comfort women, though it is dangerously close to it. The Japanese government has not yet issued a formal apology, nor have they released money as reparations for the abuses. Japanese revisionists deny the existence of WWII sex slaves. And just last year, a statue of a comfort woman along Roxas Blvd. was removed with the approval of President Duterte.
Assistant dramaturg Eudes Garcia tells me that in a recent colloquium on the status of Filipino comfort women, Lila Pilipina, the organization comprised of WWII Japanese military sexual slavery survivors, reported that out of hundreds of former comfort women only six are alive, three of whom are already bedridden. Rosa Henson herself passed away in 1997. To put it succinctly, the lolas are dying out.
More than anything, “Nana Rosa” compels us to remember just as Rosa Henson chose to. Perhaps by haunting us with the same ghosts that pervaded her memory, we’re also jolted into never forgetting.
“We're not saying that this play is going to change a lot of things,” says Garcia. “We cannot speak for the whole prod, but in our own small ways this is the contribution to not forget ... [to say] ‘there is courage in remembering.’”
“Nana Rosa” runs from Feb. 27 to March 17 at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, Palma Hall, UP Diliman. For tickets and other information, contact UP Playwrights’ Theatre at 926-13-49 / 981-8500 local 2449 or Nico at 09175198879, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.