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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

entry arrow11:22 PM | 'Puki' is a Beautiful Word

"Puki!" To hear it spoken out loud -- and then eagerly reciprocated by a jam-packed and participative audience squeamish and giddy with the knowledge that nothing like this has ever happened in their whole lives -- is to define what for anyone is the ultimate arrival of Dumaguete and its sensitivities to sexual politics. What beautiful affirmation. It has become quite sophisticated, this town. And for that, all women are grateful.

It has been five years since Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues made its nervous, and brave, debut on the Luce Auditorium stage. Five years ago, the New Voice Company's Monique Wilson sent her Manila-based actresses (Lara Fabregas, Christine Carlos, and Lynn Sherman) to test the waters of Dumaguete's sensibilities, and they were all surprised to find a community willing enough to be entertained by what promised to be a night of scandalous fun, only to be bowled over by TVM's serious message of ending violence against women and children.

Still, there were a lot of naysayers and detractors. The first year alone, somebody with clout did the utmost to block the show from even seeing the opening of the Luce stage curtains. One version of the story goes that the person attended the gala performance, perched somewhere in the backstage, and tape-recorded the whole show, presumably as evidence to convince people that TVM was a play to be banned for sheer pornography. That wasn't too successful a plan.

Bing Valbuena, TVM's indefatigable local producer, recalls that by the second year of the play's annual staging, there were many who commented in a world-weary way: "Again?" Bing said that she replied with the simplest of answers: "Yes."

By the third year, someone asked her: "Don't you get tired of it?" and she said, "No. The more I feel we actually need this." Which is true, because even when we in the VDay Core Group thought that we had done enough to open the eyes of the local community to hear VDay's goal of making widespread issues that concern women, by the fourth year a respected medical doctor actually told Bing, "You mean that these local actors of TVM were once raped?" And then the not-so-good doctor ended that flippant remark with braying for loud laughter.

Bing said she merely looked at him, and kept her quiet. "The only thing that makes sense to people like him is their own nonsense," she later told me. Which may be why TVM has resurfaced once again this year, in time for Women's Month. "We said last year was the last," she said. "The last, yes, for the staging of The Vagina Monologues in the season, but never the last for VDay. Why? Because I saw how people, especially men, have increasingly joined in and started rerouting their lives to a road of support and love. It's a birthing process, and indeed we are all on our way. It may be painful rerouting, but nevertheless, we're going there. VDay has to continue. We must continue until the violence stops, just like what Eve Ensler once said. And we want to bring this community closer to home."

And what can be closer to home than to provide a twist in the annual staging of TVM? The twist comes in making all the monologues matter to us a little more closely, by reinventing itself through language. TVM in Filipino, exquisitely translated by Rito Asilo to suit our own idioms and sensibilities of culture, and finally becoming Usaping Puki.

As directed by Dessa Quesada-Palm, a much-beloved transplant to Dumaguete with impressive theatrical credentials that include stints with PETA, Usaping Puki differs greatly from the English versions previously directed by me and the great Laurie Raymundo. I love and adore Dessa's take on the Monologues, which takes Asilo's pulsating Tagalog and renders the whole show bathed in the sepia and warmth of the local. It was as if TVM had always been acted out like this, told in the wonderful lucidity and musicality of Tagalog -- so Pinoy, in fact, that suddenly I felt possessive of these women's stories, like they were the very stories of my nanay, of my lolas and manangs and ates and primas. It helps that the Filipiniana mood is immediately conjured by the stirring guitar score by Roy Derame, as well as by the wonderful wooden furniture (made by Bong Callao) which lent the set a rustic Filipino-Hispanic ambience that recalled old Saturday afternoons in lola's sala.

Dessa also gives the Monologues an even deeper familiar resonance by going away from the scripted catalogue of answers for the questions "If your vagina can talk, what would it say?" and "If your vagina can dress up, what would it wear?" and instead turning to Dumaguete's women -- students, old ladies in the park, saleswomen, beauticians -- and videotaping their candid answers to these questions. The answers range from the very serious, to the very funny, to the very surprising. Indeed a revealing portrait of the Dumaguete woman, and what she thinks of her vagina.

Each monologue -- from "Buhok," to "Ang Aking Baha," to "Kiki Workshop," to "'Pagkat Gusto Niya Itong Titigan," to "Ang Aking Pwerta, Ang Aking Nayon," to "Ang Aking Munting Kalachuchi," to "Pagbawi sa Salitang Puki," to "Ang Maiksing Palda," to "Naroon Ako sa Loob ng Silid" -- become more devastating or funny because they are told to us in our own words. This removes the last barrier in our unconscious reach for empathy, because they are told not in a language (English) that may be familiar to all of us, but remains essentially and forever alien. English, for all its glories and promise, can never really express our truest expressions and colors. I had a discussion about this once in a literature class when we pondered on the best translation for the local word "lanlan." A student said it was "lick." But of course, I said. And yet: lick? That word does not exactly convey everything that "lanlan" is, because "lanlan" may very well be "licking," but it is more so "licking with pleasure."

Language, you see, is a prism for how we think of the world.

The monologue that never fails to be the biggest bombshell for every TVM night is the one with the moaning courtesy of "The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy." As "Ang Babaeng Mahilig Magpaligaya ng mga Puke," it is even funnier, and devastatingly so because it is ably translated with such sexy gusto by Sharon Dadang-Rafols, who comes off in this version as a vivacious and knowing ex-lawyer sex-worker who is very much aware of what she can give, and deliver. Her multiple orgasms that punctuate the performance had the whole audience reduced to hysterics.

But it is the new monologue, "Sabihin Mo," that surprisingly provides the show's heart and soul. I think this is because it is the story of three lolas, all of them comfort women, who recount the painful details of their experiences as the Japanese's sexual slaves during World War II. The whole monologue rises to wonderful crescendo, ending as an angry but impassioned plea for all of us never to forget the wrongs done to them.

That is essentially why we keep doing TVM, and VDay, to continue these women's stories lest we forget. Because to forget means a recapitulation to the institutional violence done to women and children. To the question: "Don't you get tired of it?" the answer should be: Must we get tired in this campaign to end violence against women and children? What kind of person are you to voice your "concern" about getting tired? Are you heartless? Can you honestly call yourself a Christian? Are you even a human being?

Strange questions these may be. But let me end this article by telling you a story of what happened while I was watching Usaping Puki last Wednesday night. There were two women and a guy sitting behind me and my friends. They were seated, I think, on seats L25, L26, and L27. They talked incessantly throughout the whole show, like uneducated troglodytes, comparing it constantly to last year's English version which they liked better, because English. (I happened to direct that show, but I took what they said with such fury, I wanted to snap at them.) Finally, in the middle of Pam Galvez's powerful monologue about a Bosnian woman who gets raped by soldiers in a refugee camp, the guy suddenly gave a disparaging joke I cannot print here for its sheer vulgarity, and the two women laughed with him. I asked myself: Is rape supposed to be funny now? What kind of people are these?

We do need Usaping Puki, and related events such as V-Walk and V-Speak, because we need to get VDay's important message out there. And sometimes, five years may not even be enough to educate everybody about the roles we should play to end violence against every woman and child. Even then, this fifth year of TVM is very much a success already -- and people have indeed started to talk in an enlightened vocabulary. This year, we certainly made TVM bear the burden of our own tongue. But what if it had been a more localized word, say, "bilat"? Sugilanong Bilat.

That, I think, would even be lovelier.

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