Manila, 2016 –
I was told to be ready to be picked up from my hotel at 5pm. We were going to see a play at the University of the Philippines. It was due to start at 7 pm, although in the Philippines that could just be aspirational. We thought we’d have plenty of time to get there.
At 5.15 my friends sent a text to say they’d be a bit late. They were stuck in traffic. Not a surprise as it was the Friday night rush. They were only about 6 km away, but it was almost an hour and a half before they arrived. It then took us the best part of another hour, on a highway choked with trucks and buses and exhaust fumes, to travel the next 10 km to the theatre.
We negotiated the ten lane circuit around Quezon Memorial Park and found the university campus. Driving through the gates after the chaos in the streets was like arriving in heaven. The campus is spacious and green and almost free of traffic. A third of the roadway was set aside for bicycles and pedestrians and we could smell the damp fresh fragrance of watered lawns.
Of course, by then we’d missed the first half hour of the play. We collected our tickets from the young people in the foyer and they tried to find three seats for us in the packed auditorium. It became obvious we were the only non-Filipinos in attendance and the ushers went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable, although this may have been as much because of our age as our nationality.
The rest of the evening was a revelation in several respects.
The first surprise was the quality of the production. Despite the shabby venue – a rundown 1960s lecture theatre at the state university – the writing, set design, costumes, lighting and acting were excellent. The play, ‘Angry Christ’, written by Floy Quintos (a fairly typical Filipino name), is based on the life of Alfonso Ossorio, a Filipino artist who lived most of his life in the US and played a leading role in the modern art movement of the 40s and 50s. In particular, he was a close friend and patron of Jackson Pollock. In 1950 he returned briefly to his home town in the Philippines to paint a mural for the chapel his wealthy family had built for the workers on their sugar plantation. The play focuses on the creation of this work, with flash backs and flash forwards to his life in the US.
One of the fascinating things about this story was the concept of a Filipino with so much wealth he could support struggling American artists and become a prolific art collector. His family were the landowners in the town of Victorias on the island of Negros. They were the local aristocracy in a community of low paid peasants and workers, much as many wealthy families in the Philippines still are today. They own most of the land and control most of the jobs. The Ossorio family had enough money to send their children to study abroad and to fund the new church building and decide how it should be decorated.
When Alfonso returned to New York after painting his mural, he bought a large estate in the Hamptons which became an artists’ colony. In the play he worries about being the rich kid who’s not taken seriously as an artist.
Another revelation was the mural itself. ‘The Angry Christ’ covers the walls and ceiling of the chapel with vivid red, yellow and blue images of angels and demons, skulls and snakes, the Apostles and the Virgin, the gigantic hands of God, and a Christ with outstretched arms and a huge flaming heart. It’s very modern. No doubt the parishioners loathed it at the time, but now it’s become a tourist attraction in the rural province.
In the final scene of the play, a projection of the mural onto the stage is digitally animated so that the image glows and the flaming heart really seems to be on fire.
The $8 ticket price included an after-show meal of sardine spaghetti and lychee cordial in the foyer. The audience comprised Manila’s artistic and bohemian crowd. There were men, including Mr Quintos, with long hair in pony tails, and women in eccentric colourful outfits.
Afterwards we headed back into the traffic, completed the ten lane circuit around Quezon Memorial Park, and retraced our route through stop start traffic to return to my hotel in just slightly less than the hour and a half it had taken to get there.
If I ever go back to the Philippines, the Chapel of St Joseph the Worker in Negros Occidental will definitely be on my must-see list.
Mary Venner has worked as a development consultant in many countries, including the Philippines. ‘Where are you this time?’, a book about her experiences, is available from online booksellers and as an eBook.