It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Seattle Repertory Theatre has successfully pulled off an extravaganza of a theatrical experience with “Here Lies Love,” conceived and written by music legend David Byrne.
Audiences are encouraged to show up in disco outfits and dance and sing along with the talented actors in this musical tale of Imelda Marcos, portrayed in rags-to-riches style, largely focused on the 20-year span of her husband Ferdinand Marcos’ presidency of the Philippines.
But equally — or more — compelling is the difficult and complex reactions of Seattle’s Filipino community members who experienced this time of the horrific rise of a cruel political dictatorship by the obscenely rich Marcos family.
This comes at the same time that Filipino Americans have been starved for chances to see talented Filipino and other Asian Pacific Islander actors, singers and dancers taking starring roles in mainstage theatrical productions.
“I felt pride,” said Manuel Cawaling, executive director of Youth Theatre Northwest and a local Filipino actor. “It’s so rare to see us playing lead roles on the stage.”
The Rep’s story includes a narrative thread by the character of a childhood friend of Imelda. The friend is left behind as the beauty queen and future first lady made her way upward.
But the major sympathetic character is Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, who also came from a wealthy family and became a rival of Marcos, taking up the mantle of the anti-Marcos progressive forces. His arrest, seven years in jail, exile to the United States and assassination upon return to run for president against Marcos offer strong emotional moments during the play.
“Our hero Aquino’s coffin brushed right by me on the crowded dance floor and I had a horribly strong reaction,” Cawaling said.
The Seattle Rep worked extensively with the local Filipino community to create educational materials and post-play events for experts on the subject matter. On April 25, a panel described the 1986 four-day People Power Revolution.
The so-called “peaceful revolution” featured thousands of demonstrators from every walk of life, and resulted in the ouster of the Marcos family, who were airlifted out of their massive palace to Hawaii by the U.S. military. When they left, they carried an estimated $15 million in clothing, jewelry, gold bars and cash, according to The Guardian newspaper.
Three of the panelists were eyewitnesses to that revolution. Naty Lamug was a young nun standing on the front lines of the demonstrations. She tearfully related her fear of being confronted by armed national police and tanks, and her respect for the Catholic Church which stood up for the people in a time of widespread poverty in the Philippines.
Odette Polintan, a Seattle attorney, emotionally told of traveling to Manila as part of an election observation team lead by the U.S. Attorney General, but she became caught up in the People Power Revolution itself.
“When Marcos fled, we all cried,” she said. “It was a life changing moment for me to see that the masses of people could peacefully topple a dictatorship.” Polintan returned to Seattle to become a human rights activist.
Photojournalist Kim Komenich, winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the People Power Revolution while he was working for the San Francisco Examiner, also spoke on the panel and showed dramatic photographs of Imelda Marcos in her private quarters, contrasting with scenes of the actions of demonstrators and reactions of the military police.
But the fourth panelist, University of Washington professor Vicente Rafael, who focuses on the modern history of the Philippines and Southeast Asia Studies, burst the bubble of the panel’s good feeling over the success of the People Power Revolution.
Although Ferdinand Marcos died without returning to the Philippines — though he was recently buried there — three of his family members have taken regional or national elected office. And, Rafael said, they are said to be supporting the current President Rodrigo Duterte whose controversial threats of martial law and uninvestigated killings of 6,000 in a purported drug war, have been carried out without lawful due process.
Indeed, Rafael said, the Presidential Commission on Good Government was set up by President Corazon Aquino — the widow of the slain Benigno Aquino who became the president after the revolution — to investigate and recover the Marcos family wealth that they allegedly skimmed from the Philippines government to the tune of $10 billion, hidden in foreign accounts. The Commission has recovered only about $3.7 billion, according to The Guardian newspaper.
“Bong Bong Marcos, son of Ferdinand and Imelda, is said to be getting ready to run for president,” Rafael pointed out. “The economy is doing better and the oligarchs are getting back into power. They never prosecuted anyone for the assassination of Ninoy Aquino. No member of the Marcos family ever went to jail for corruption or the murder and torture of hundreds of dissidents.”
Rafael also pointed out that the play made little mention of the extensive role of the U.S. government in tacitly agreeing with, and outright supporting, the Marcos dictatorship, to the detriment of millions of Filipinos who lived in poverty during the regime and lost civil liberties under martial law.
The panel was moderated by Cindy Domingo, who was an anti-Marcos activist and sister of Silme Domingo. Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes were both leaders at Local 37 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union — which represented cannery workers — who were murdered by a contract issued by Marcos. A U.S. court found the Marcos family liable for the murders after supporters of the men sued.
“I am hoping people will go see this creative play and learn about Filipino history and Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos,” Cindy Domingo said. “It’s important history for you to know about as the corrupt Marcos family tries to regain power in the Philippines again.”
Her niece, Kalayaan Domingo, the daughter of Silme Domingo, was less supportive of the play.
“I will not allow the production or music overshadow the true story of greed and corruption that lies at the center of this story,” she said. “The ending was not accurate. The People Power movement was not all peaceful. People were murdered, tortured, disappeared and exiled in the years leading up to those final four days before the Marcoses left the Philippines.”
Manuel Cawaling said Imelda Marcos will be remembered for the glamour she promoted — while many in the country suffered economically.
“Imelda Marcos’ ridiculous answer to widespread poverty was to provide ‘beauty,’ in her clothing and jewelry and a huge palace of arts,” he said.
Seattle artist Carina del Rosario had a nuanced reaction to “Here Lies Love.”
“It felt like we were being swept up with what was happening to Filipinos at the time, entranced by romance and glamour, but sobered by harsh reality, disgusted by corruption and misogyny, and then moved by idealism,” del Rosario said.
“In the end,” she said, “I think ‘Here Lies Love’ humanized this woman I have loathed, without necessarily trying to convince me to change my opinion. It touched me on a visceral level with the music and powerful performances that told a fairly straightforward story.”
Show information and community forums
“Here Lies Love” is in production at Seattle Repertory Theatre and continues through June 18. Several community forums will offer insights from the Filipino community in Seattle.
Narratives of the Anti-Marcos Movement
Tuesday, May 9 (post-play, from 9-9:45 p.m.)
At the Seattle Repertory Theatre (for ticket holders)
With panelists Mila De Guzman: author of Women Against Marcos: Stories of Filipino and Filipino American Women Who Fought a Dictator and member SF-Bay Area Filipino American Human Rights Alliance.
Michael Withey: human rights attorney; author of Summary Execution: The Political Assassinations of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes.
Cindy Domingo: human rights and anti-Marcos activist; co-editor of A Time to Rise: Collective Memoirs of the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP)
Tom Churchill: author of Triumph over Marcos
Celebrating the Seattle Filipino Community
Saturday, May 13 (post-play, from 3:30-4:15 p.m.)
At the Seattle Repertory Theatre (for ticket holders)
With panelists Third Andresen: Director, UW Philippines Study Abroad Program and Director, UW Northwest Hip Hop Archive/Collections
Dorothy Cordova: Executive Director, Filipino American National Historical Society
Manuel Cawaling: theatre director, performer
Katrina Pestaño: artist and organizer
Justin Huertas: composer, playwright, musician; Seattle Repertory Theatre writer
Aleksa Manila: Founder, Pride ASIA; Chief Entertainment Officer, AleksaManila.com
Moderator: Sheila Burrus: Executive Director, Filipino Community Center of Seattle.
Community events (open to the public)
Welcome Reception for Here Lies Love performers
Monday, May 8, 6-7:30 p.m.
Filipino Community Center, 5740 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S., Seattle
Welcome members of the cast of Here Lies Love! RSVP at Eventbrite.com.
Panel Conversation with Members of the Here Lies Love Cast
Saturday, May 13, 10:30 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Filipino Community Center, 5740 Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, Seattle
Members of the cast of Here Lies Love discuss their artistic work. RSVP at Eventbrite.com.
Seattle’s Philippine Soirée hosted by 3-time Tony and Grammy Award-winner Jhett Tolentino, with FYLPRO
Saturday, June 3, 5:30-11 p.m.
Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St.
This special performance features a Sari-Sari market of Filipino-made products, a Salo-Salo featuring Filipino food, and a post-show Q&A with the lead cast and producer. Learn more at http://www.fylpro.org/SeattlesPHsoiree/.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Carina del Rosario’s name. This error has been corrected.