There are hundreds of names carved into the black granite of the Wall of Remembrance. The Wall is erected on the grounds of Bantayog ng mga Bayani, a memorial center in Diliman, Quezon City that honors those who stood against oppression when the Philippines was placed under Martial Law from 1972 to 1986. Unfortunately, thirty years later, the ideals that these people died pursuing have yet to be fully realized. In a time as noisy as today, how can one make known the legacy left behind by these martyrs and heroes?
One possible answer comes in the form of the live stage. Some of those names on the Wall—as well as a few whose stories have not yet been heard—were resurrected on the very same grounds in the form of Never Again: Voices of Martial Law, a theater production that ran from September 23 to October 16 at Bantayog ng mga Bayani.
Never Again was made up of nine one-act plays—some written specifically for this occasion, and some having existed from as far back as the Martial Law era itself. Festival director Dolly Gutierrez, of the production team collectively known as Ladies Who Launch, explained that there was no specific process in selecting the plays that would be featured. Some of the younger writers and directors involved with the project took inspiration from the old stories of their relatives, while others decided to tackle their plays through more modern lenses. “The only limitation given was that the plays were time-bound—twenty to forty-five minutes each,” Gutierrez says. “So I guess you could say that we gave them complete freedom to create what inspired them.”
For dramaturge Glenn Mas—who helped develop the production’s scripts—the closest source of inspiration for him was the memory of Evelio Javier, whom Mas had been neighbors with in his college years. “The experience took me back to the Evelio that I knew. So when I heard the gunshots [in one of the plays, Duyan Ka ng Magiting], I wanted to shout, ‘Evelio, run!’” Not everyone who helped bring Never Again to life had personal connections to the era like Mas—a fact that has led to the phenomenon of historical revisionism, much to his frustration.
But the voices of the uninformed, it seems, have only grown louder in the digital age. Surely an uphill battle, had Gutierrez and her co-producers attempted to directly address those who claim Martial Law wasn’t as dark as people make it seem. Working with a limited budget, the Never Again team knew that they couldn’t just squander what they had on shock value. “We didn’t play up graphic torture scenes. We focused more on the narrative, the human experience, and the direct result of the characters’ experiences,” Gutierrez says. Mas adds that this approach was essential, especially given Never Again’s nature as a stage production. “Because theater is live performance—even if it’s about an event that happened decades ago—at the moment it’s happening onstage, it’s happening in the here and the now, therefore adding to the immediacy of the event. Mas madali ‘yung suspension of disbelief.”
For those behind Never Again, this was one of the driving forces behind kickstarting the project. There was an unspoken agreement among them to commit to telling the truth, and the stage seemed to be the most truthful medium. “Having known Evelio,” Mas recalls, “I think the five to seven minutes [his character] is onstage accurately encapsulated what his life was all about.” While theater has its obvious physical limits, these same restrictions helped the writers and directors trim down any traces of triviality and embellishment that otherwise might have been added to their stories. What was left behind was, for them, truth.
It is important to note, however, that Gutierrez, Mas, and the rest of the team were not trying not present facts as truth, but experiences as truth. For them, the objective of Never Again wasn’t to tell the audience things that they could also find through a simple Google search. What mattered in this production was the idea that human beings were at the heart of the atrocities committed during Martial Law—human beings who, unfortunately, feel distant for many of us, on account of the fact that they are unable to use their own voices to testify.
In order to get past this inevitable distance, the idea of having Never Again as a collection of plays came into play. Instead of telling one person’s story, an entire tapestry was weaved. The plays did not only narrate the lives of those who died, but also addressed historical revisionism, the repercussions of joining a movement, how the youth deal with conflict, and how relationships are affected by politics, among many other themes. “It’s perfectly balanced, all points of view are seen, and there’s plenty of room for introspection,” Gutierrez states. It is their hope that by merely showing audiences such a full picture of what it was like to live under Martial Law, any seeds of doubt will be cast away by the sheer amount of irrefutable detail.
Still, some of those seeds remain among many Filipinos. The Never Again team acknowledges that their efforts alone will never put the country at peace or soothe the pain of those who have suffered. But by constantly reminding audiences of the human experience behind all the headlines (their goal is to turn Never Again into an annual event) maybe more Filipinos will be able to come to an understanding that the loss of life alone at the hands of another human being is deplorable, all politics aside.
“One thing I got from being with the plays from pre-production to now,” Mas adds, “Is that these are people with children, with family members, and they had dreams too. I am sure I will cry for the loss of Evelio Javier, but also for his two sons who were deprived of a father, and his widow who was deprived of a husband.” After everything, they are who remain, and who matter in the end.