Lapulapu, Ang Datu ng Mactan: Fleshing Out a Mysterious Hero

Posted on 24 October 2021
By Alya B. Honasan

Yes, 2021 is historic for more noble reasons than a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and the unofficial, sly start of campaigning for the 2022 national elections. Five hundred years ago this year, as marked by the 2021 quincentennial commemorations in the Philippines, Christianity came to our shores (and remains the dominant national religion); the Philippines became part of the first circumnavigation of the globe by Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano (who took over after Magellan’s death); and Lapulapu triumphed in the Battle of Mactan. The last event—mainly, its protagonist—is the subject of a musical to be staged as part of the quincentennial celebrations, already significantly pared down because of the pandemic, and the man chosen to tell this story was playwright Nicolas B. Pichay.

Babaylan (Natasha Cabrera) and Lapulapu (Armand Ferrer) of Lapulapu, Ang Datu ng Mactan Musical, from the official photo release of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Photo by Paul Sugano.

Pichay, who has been inducted into the Carlos Palanca Literary Awards Hall of Fame, has written several plays and dance librettos, published poems and a book of poetry, and translated plays into Filipino. He also knows a thing or two about historical drama; he has written “Almanac for a Revolution,” on the life of Marcelo H. Del Pilar, which won First Prize in the Philippine Centennial Literary Contest in 1998, and “Ang Henerala,” on the life of Teresa Magbanua of Iloilo. A lawyer, he is the director of the Legislative Research Service of the Philippine Senate. Lifestyle emailed him a few questions about the upcoming production, and Pichay treated us to a haunting musical excerpt.

Armand Ferrer as Lapulapu. Photographed by Rhon Velarde, courtesy of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

So where are you now in the production of the musical?

“Lapulapu, Ang Datu ng Mactan” is set to be presented in June at Manila Metropolitan Theater. Then the show will be broadcast, filmed live, on the internet after the event. The production is a brainchild of Nick Lizaso, president of the Cultural Center of the Philippines and chair of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and Chair Rene Escalante of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP). The performance will prelude the official reopening of Met Theater in December of this year.

Paw Castillo as Enrique de Malacca. Photographed by Rhon Velarde, courtesy of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

We are ready to go into rehearsals, which is very challenging, in the context of the pandemic. Strict health protocols involving swab tests and quarantine arrangements will be observed from rehearsals up until the end of the show. Nick is the artistic director, I wrote the libretto and the script, Dexter Santos is directing, Gino Gonzales is designing the production. Videography will be by GA Fallarme, Krina Cayabyab is writing and arranging the original music, Dennis Marasigan is doing lighting design and choreography is by JM Cabling.

The play features some songs which were entered and won in the Quincentennial Songwriting Contest. I also included Nicanor Abelardo’s “Bituing Marikit” and Yoyoy Villame’s “Magellan Song” in the mix to enrich the dramaturgical framework. So yes, it’s kind of a jukebox musical.

Andre Tiangco as Magellan. Photographed by Rhon Velarde, courtesy of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

That excerpt was beautiful, taking off from ‘Bituing Marikit’ into something else. Why Abelardo as a reference?

Abelardo studied music in the United States. When he came back, his artistic response was to incorporate the kundiman into whatever he learned about western music. Because of Nic (my namesake, hehe), the kundiman was transformed into an art song. I wanted the melodic equivalent of a reaction to colonization. Also, in the original lyrics, Bituing Marikit is the muse, the loved one. I made the loved one more specific by naming her Kalayaan. What I wanted to do was musically connect the “Bituing Marikit” theme to the legend that Lapulapu has become. I asked the composer to tinker with the original melody, so we hear a bit of it before it becomes a new song. Krina and I collaborated on an original song for Lapulapu that is an homage to Abelardo. Her music engages with Abelardo’s melody, and I wrote new lyrics where I transform the star into the symbol of freedom—alternative lyrics that expand the meaning of love.

Al Gatmaitan as Pigafetta. Photographed by Rhon Velarde, courtesy of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

How and when were you approached to write this musical? How long was the writing process?

I was asked by Nick Lizaso in January 2021 if I wanted to write a play about Lapulapu. And who wouldn’t want to do so for the 500th anniversary of an important victory in our history? There has always been interest in Lapulapu and his place in the pantheon of Philippine heroes. He was the first known leader who refused to kowtow to a foreign power, an idea that reverberates in contemporary Philippine life. His nemesis, Magellan, has also been the focus for his audacity to circumnavigate the globe even if it meant changing allegiance. Against all odds, he was able to circle the world—except that he messed with the wrong guy, Lapulapu. According to history, Lapulapu and Magellan never met except in that one battle, where Lapulapu and his men emerged victorious. But the clash of ideas which these two characters represent is very apparent from that historical moment when Magellan landed in Homonhon. That’s an exciting dramatic premise right there. How can a playwright resist? It takes time for me to let ideas percolate before I start the actual writing. I begin by reading as much as I can about the personages and the milieu.

Lapulapu costume sketch by Gino Gonzales.

What’s the biggest thing you learned about Lapulapu in your research that you didn’t know before?

Lapulapu is spelled without the hyphen, except when one is referring to the fish. Other than that, all the things I’ve learned in researching about Lapulapu, I had more or less learned from Yoyoy Villame’s “Magellan Song.” I had to review portions of Antonio Pigafetta’s account and read academic essays, too. There’s this current discovery about Lapulapu’s age. That’s in the play. There’s also this observation that Lapulapu did not physically slay Magellan, which to me is nitpicking and irrelevant to the essential narrative.

Instead, let me tell you about my biggest takeaways as a playwright. One, history and drama are among the most compatible dramatic bedfellows one can find. The basic elements of drama—character, conflict, argument, climax, resolution, insight—are main staples of historical accounts that excite, inspire and provoke me. The other kinds of history, the ones that merely list dates and events, I tend to discard.

Cara Barredo as Humamay, the folkloric name of Humabon’s wife later baptized as Juana. Photographed by Rhon Velarde, courtesy of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Two, historical drama is a chance to get more people to understand history on an emotional, intellectual and empathetic level, and for people to connect and understand their current situation. Writing historical drama goes back to the tradition of playwrights as commentators and provocateurs. It gives them an opportunity to open conversations. Historians and dramatists need to work together more.

During the writing of the play, I was daunted thinking about the experience of other artists doing historical drama who was taken to task for their dramatic portrayal of personages and events. I have the impression—and this is mine alone, and may be wrong—that some of the biting criticism against historical drama centers around what experts consider “factual inaccuracies.”

Reyna Juana costume sketch by Gonzales

I had my third realization after a conversation with professor Xiao Chua, a proponent of popularizing history. In adapting history as drama, there is a need to chart a common historical map of events that shows generally accepted facts of the case, as it were. The challenge of the playwright is to take from those facts an argument or insight—which may or may not be in the historical records—that enrich our understanding of history and ourselves as a people. In this play, I learned when to stick to the facts and when to invoke artistic license. Nick Lizaso has been very hands-on with this project, and very supportive of ideas and experimentation. Thanks also to Rene Escalante, whom I consulted. And Ian Alfonso of the NHCP, who sent me notes on the focus of the quincentennial.

The fourth thing I learned is that historical drama cannot merely show past events. It must lay down a narrative that sheds light on the present situation, no matter how dim. Without giving away any spoilers, I’d like to clue in the audience by saying that in this play, Lapulapu lives to this day.

Red Nuestro as Humabon. Photographed by Rhon Velarde, courtesy of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

He has always been perceived by Filipinos as a hero, although in a rather one-dimensional way; we know very little about him. Is there anything you especially want people to know about him?

Lapulapu is known by many names, real or fabricated. His life is a mystery in many ways. For example, no one knows how old he was at the Battle of Mactan. Or the nature of his relationship with Humabon, his frenemy who kept insinuating Magellan into their lives. What is his origin story? All of these are preliminary considerations in humanizing a character in a play. But known historical records do not offer much on Lapulapu. Even Pigafetta’s account—one of the primary documents on the period—doesn’t contain much.

Much can be said of Lapulapu’s relevance despite his spotty appearance in written history, though. For example, many years after Lapulapu’s victory, Mariano Ponce, a prominent propagandista against Spanish colonial rule and one of the founders of La Solidaridad—probably reading patriotic meaning in what Lapulapu achieved and in admiration of the warrior—used Kalipulapu as one of his noms de guerre. This much is true: Lapulapu’s memory has survived the passage of time. And now, after 500 years, we feel that he is still relevant. In the play, I write of Lapulapu’s identity in a way that mimics both his quasi-invisibility and legendary invincibility in history. I’d like to explain more, but it will spoil the fun of watching the performance, so I’ll just stop there.

Let me compensate by telling you of the other characters in history whose voices I include in the play. There is the wife of Humabon, whom the Spaniards baptized as Reyna Juana in honor of the reigning Spanish queen at that time. She is also referred to in some resources as Humamay, a referral that is disputed by many professional historians. Nonetheless, in the play, she is Humamay to me because, by her name—real or made-up—I wanted her to have an identity separate from what the colonizers transformed her into.

There’s also Enrique de Malacca, the translator of the expedition; the fabulous babaylan who make sense of dark times; and Pigafetta, of course.

How are you depicting Lapulapu in your work? What is the focus of the story, and how is he presented?

Lapulapu is the main voice of the play. The focus of the story is his memory of a battle and the events that led up to it. But the text also argues in favor of his spiritual presence in current times. In the beginning of the play, he is a romantic hero doubting his relevance. By the play’s end, he comes to understand the meaning of sovereignty and realizes that it takes a warrior’s mindset to ensure it.

And since he is the man who brought Christianity to the Philippines, how are you presenting Ferdinand Magellan? Is he really the villain in this entire episode?

Dramaturgically, the action of the play is pushed by Lapulapu’s decision to resist, and not Magellan’s act of aggression. In that sense, the play places Lapulapu at the center of things. In this play, we take Lapulapu’s point of view. Nonetheless, I wrote Magellan as a strong counterforce in this play for the drama to hold maximum tension.

In this play, Magellan is driven by ambition. As an agent of the Spanish king, he embodies religious intolerance and colonial oppression. In the play, Lapulapu refuses to bow down to the authority of the king of Spain and the power of the pope to declare the royals as owners of all lands. And so, as a response, Magellan attacks the people of Mactan. He loses to Lapulapu, who is the better tactician.

There is an initial and very strong tendency to mark Magellan as a villain. I didn’t take that position because it seems obvious, harsh and didactic. History and its dramatic depiction could stand a bit more nuance. In this play, his cunning and pride lead him to his death even as his intentions may have been noble. The fact that Elcano—not him— was knighted for circumnavigating the world is already a comment on how he lived.

People will be curious: who is playing Lapulapu? And how do you find the music? And the story certainly lends itself to colorful production numbers! Will we see those?

Lapulapu is going to be played by Arnold Reyes, who has done much work for musical theater, television and movies. Tarek El Tayech is Magellan. And KZ Tandingan sings as one of the babaylan. The play demands a wide range of musical genres and styles, from indigenous chanting to opera; from kundiman to pop; from folk comic songs to rousing anthems. Krina Cayabyab covers them all. Her music is haunting. Watch out for what Dexter Santos can do with a spare set and costumes by Gino Gonzales. I’m also looking forward to the meaningful dancing, and the videos promise to be astounding, as do the lights.

Five hundred years of Christianity is a long time. What do you think is to be celebrated most about this event? What do you think this faith has or has not done for Filipinos?

One of the things that is being celebrated during the quincentennial is the introduction of Christianity to the country. The way things have developed over the expanse of Philippine history, to celebrate Christianity in a country that has long boasted of being the only Catholic nation in Asia is expected and understandable. On one hand, it is an acknowledgment of how strong the Catholic faith has taken root in our culture, and the institutions and practices that emerged from it. But on another level, its celebration must also open up conversations on the harm that was perpetuated against the indigenous cultures, and current ideas inherited from that era that continue to damage the national psyche.

Theater is for a live audience, first and foremost. What kind of audience do you anticipate, considering COVID-19? And how far do you want this work to go?

If there was no COVID-19, I would think there would be wide interest in watching a play about Lapulapu. I understand it will be invitational and will observe proper health protocols for the production as well as the live audience. For the future, though, I wish some government agency would pick up the tab for the show to tour the country when COVID is done. Lapulapu is the linchpin of our history. If we understand his context, the importance of sovereignty will also be easy to understand.

How should his countrymen today remember and honor him?

My answer to that question is in the play itself: in the point of view of the action; the manner in which the scenes are formulated; and the way motivations are explored and revealed. It’s in the buildup of the musical numbers, the depiction of the ideal, and, finally, in the quiet of the last scene. In a poetic sense, we carry the genes of Lapulapu in our collective makeup. If we look up to Lapulapu as the source and fount of the emergent and subsequent national consciousness, it would be best for his countrymen to remember and honor him by finding the Lapulapu DNA in each and every one of us.

About the Author

Alya B. Honasan is a writer, editor, breast cancer and depression survivor, and environmental advocate. This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 30 March 2021. Republished here with her permission.

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