I was nine when Ninoy Aquino was assassinated in 1983. Soon after, my cousin Candy--my best friend--and her family left Manila to live in the US. I was distraught. She and I had played together every day during the summer and every Sunday after church for as long as I could remember, and suddenly she was gone.
My parents never discussed politics with me. So it wasn’t until much later that I learned Candy’s father was a known supporter of Ninoy, and the family had fled out of fear that Marcos would have him picked up by the military.
I was 11 when helicopters circled my childhood home. We lived less than a mile from the government-controlled TV station whose newscasters were reporting that Ferdinand Marcos had won the February 1986 elections. When protesters gathered around the TV station, my parents instructed my sisters and me to stay far away from the windows. But I remember looking out from the second floor to see the helicopter doors open and soldiers emerge with assault weapons on their shoulders ready to fire.
My resolution not to watch “Here Lies Love” changed last summer while I was washing dishes in my New York City apartment. Over the noise of running water, I heard an interview with the director Alex Timbers on the radio. Before directing “Here Lies Love,” Timbers had staged “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” a musical that my husband and I had seen at the Public Theater in New York in 2010.
Having grown up in the Philippines, I didn’t know anything about Andrew Jackson, his military exploits or his ruthless policies towards Native Americans. Yet I loved the musical. It was not only entertaining; it made you think about nation building, power and democracy.
So with hopes that “Here Lies Love” would do the same, I bought tickets for me and my ten-year-old son, Emil. Emil and I try to fly to Manila to see my parents every other year. When we were there last, we visited Intramuros several times and often discussed Philippine history during the Spanish rule. But we hadn’t yet discussed the intertwined history of the Philippines and the United States.
Instead of getting the regular admission tickets to “Here Lies Love,” where you are on the dance floor with the performers, Emil and I sat in the balcony. It was both mind-blowing and unnerving to look down on our country’s history re-created in club music and strobe lights surrounded by a mixed audience some of whom were inebriated. (You can purchase a tequila or a rum shot before the show.)
In an interview, David Byrne said he wanted the audience to feel the intoxication of power that Imelda must have felt.
For me, watching “Here Lives Love” was a surreal experience. I started to make a mental list of scenes I found factually exaggerated, but I was constantly interrupted by my ten-year-old date who was blown away by the disco lights, the colorful costumes and the music. He was also confused by the plot:
"Mama, why did Imelda leave her best friend?"
"Why was she ashamed to be poor?"
"Did Ninoy really break up with her because she was too tall?"
"Why was Ninoy put in prison?"
On our way out of the theater, I listened to the reactions of the people around us, a mix of savvy New Yorkers and out-of-towners, along with tourists from other countries. Like Emil, many of them had had trouble understanding what was going on, but virtually everyone loved the show and wanted to know more about the peaceful revolution.
The next day, I bought the cast recording, and Emil and I listened to the songs again and again. He loved the music; I heard him singing “I Am a Child of the Philippines” in the shower. I was impressed with all the details in the lyrics that clearly reflected the research David Byrne had done: from references to our stunning sunsets, our ubiquitous buko (coconut) juice to starting sentences with “Is it a sin?” No one says that in New York!
I also went online and Googled “Ninoy Aquino drummer."
During the play, I couldn't stop crying when "Just Ask the Flowers," written from the point of view of Ninoy's mom, was sung.
When I asked my son,
What do you want to be?
I was a little surprised
When he said to me
I want to be drummer, Mom
I want to be a drummer
I want to call the people
Get them all together
That night back in 1983 when we learned that Ninoy had been shot, my dad drove my mom, my sisters and me around the neighborhood of Ninoy and Cory's home. My sisters and I counted the yellow ribbons that were supposed to welcome him home.
Seeing “Here Lies Love” brought back all those memories, which had been muted over time. I have been in the US 18 years now, first as a graduate student, then wife of a Midwesterner, and now a Filipino American mom.
What also came back was the happiness and the hope all the people around me felt when the Marcoses left in 1986, and the privilege that my friends and I felt, that we were the charmed generation, able to live our lives unencumbered by the dictatorship.
When I left the theater I was elated. I was happy to relive the historical events with Emil and the international audience. But my heart was also heavy because I couldn't shake off what it must have felt like to be Ninoy’s mom, and the mothers, fathers and children of the many who were killed during the martial law years. And I felt a twinge of sadness because I had chosen to live in the US and not take part in the rebuilding of the country and the ongoing battle against poverty and corruption.
I also still couldn't get over the fact that a non-Filipino was telling our story, for me, the most sacred of all our stories.
But as I poured through David Byrne's writings of how “Here Lies Love” became a musical, I realized that in addition to his talent and perseverance, his fame and international connections made it possible for our story to be captured in a spellbinding experience, in this most international of all cities, 30 years after it all happened--and for all this I am grateful.
I had to remind myself that writers and artists have made works about people from other cultures for a long time. The most beautiful of stories are passed on.
The production of “Here Lies Love” is remarkable to me because this time, it is OUR story that is being told in the US mainstream.
David Byrne humbly writes, that even if he’s seen the show many times, he is still deeply moved by it. “I can’t take credit...it actually happened.”
And to Mr. Byrne, I think we Filipinos should say, “Thank you” and “we will.”
“Here Lies Love” is currently playing at the Public Theater in New York City and at the National Theater in London.
Tricia J. Capistrano’s essays have appeared in Newsweek, MrBellersNeighborhood.com, The Philippine Star, ANI 32: The Global Pinoy Issue, and Hanggang sa Muli: Homecoming Stories for the Filipino Soul. She is also the author of the children's book “Dingding, Ningning, Singsing and Other Fun Tagalog Words."
More from Tricia J. Capistano:
Why Did Leron Go Up The Papaya Tree?
December 31, 2013
A Filipino nursery rhyme sends a mother into an exploration of values with her half-American child.