I seem to be stuck in a time warp.
This particular musical has arrested my imagination. It happens to be a rendition of “The Little Mermaid” complete with the original turning-into-foam ending a la Hans Christian Andersen, with some geopolitics and post-colonialism added into the mix.
There is some kind of poetic justice that this is not a happily-ever-after story.
N played the leading role her senior year in high school while I was a freshman in college, and maybe in some ways, that was the beginning of the end.
It so happened that, like many college freshmen, I found myself sucked into the vortex known as identity politics, and came away with a deeper understanding of where I fit in terms of the inexorable forces of history. It is no accident that my parents landed upon these distant shores. Their homeland has the ambiguous distinction of being one of the few actual colonies of the United States. The Filipino Diaspora was one of the initial symptoms of global capitalism, resulting in an archetypal scenario played and replayed in all the developing countries of the world.
Locked away and freeze dried into this mix is the so-called “colonial mentality”, which this musical somehow gives voice to, interspersed within the over-arching love story, coupled to the fantastic aboriginal mysticism.
The book My Love, My Love upon which “Once on This Island” is based has an entire vivid scene evoking the ritual of trance. It wasn’t until I took a Southeast Asian Studies class that I realized where our culture came from. Until then, it never occurred to me that the Philippines has never existed in a vacuum. It is no accident that Malaysians and Indonesians share many of the same morphological characteristics that my relatives and I do. It is no coincidence that the Malayan tongue and the multifarious tongues of Indonesia have significant similarity to Tagalog, Ilocano, and Cebuano. My ancestors roamed the sometimes tempestuous waves of the Indian Ocean and of the great Pacific, reaching as far west as Madagascar and as far east as Easter Island (and possibly beyond)
And trance was a key part of Southeast Asian cultures. The Islamic tribes of Mindanao in the south of the Philippines have incorporated much of the indigenous animism into their faith, just as the Christian tribes of the Visayas and of Luzon have imbued the Catholic saints with animistic powers. The ritual dance of Singkil made a lot more sense amidst this context. It wasn’t just something pretty and complicated that the Bayanihan Dance Troupe fabricated to wow the audience. There was an entire story hiding in there, telling of Prince Bantugan and Princess Gandinggan. The bamboo poles weren’t just props. They were instruments, to keep time along with the drums and the gongs and the magical kulintang, which were the keys that opened the portal to the trance state, and to the other worlds.
Everything took on a different sheen when I actually went to the Philippines in 1995. Songs from this musical kept playing in my head as I found myself on Borocay, the ultimate tourist trap. On the road from Caticlan to the boat launch, we came across Ati who were getting ready for the upcoming Ati-Atihan, a festival involving trance and ritual, supposedly commemorating the first meeting of the Ati and of the Malay of Borneo. “We Dance” immediately makes me think of the Philippines—with the formation of the Bayanihan Dance Troupe, Filipinos are perhaps known world-wide as dancers. It seems like every Filipino child’s first ambition is to become an actor, a singer, or a dancer, or perhaps all three, and I still wonder about that to this day, and why does no one want to become a bench researcher, or a theoritician, or a social scientist?
It all culminated when my sister adapted the story to the Philippines, with the Pearls of the Orient replacing the French Antilles, and the Spanish (and the Americans) replacing the French, all translated into Tagalog.
Oddly, Bn. somehow found a children’s production of “Once on This Island” in San Jose that one year, and A. came with us. The feminist issues of the Little Mermaid, and the post-colonial issues raised by the adaptation to the French Antilles can generate a lot of discussion. Interestingly, the composers for “Once on This Island”—Lynn Ahearn and Stephen Flaherty—later together penned the score for the non-Disney animated film “Anastasia”. This also, in many ways, marked the beginning of the end (although how does something end when it didn’t ever actually begin?)
But like many of the blog posts over the past few weeks, this is another piece of errata that has somehow followed me all these days, randomly popping up from time to time, and now probably sitting somewhere on my iPod.
I keep imagining that things are a lot more solid than I think they are. I don’t know where this strange certainty comes from. Every now and again, I want to doubt it. But there is something unshakeable, unflappable, about this particular narrative. I hope that I’m right for once, and that this isn’t just some more of the same misleading portentousness that I’ve been feeding myself over the past 15 years from time to time.
And speaking of time, it seems that it is continuously running out. Eventually, my path will be determined by sheer attrition. (Although the 10 of cups popped up twice, promising otherwise.)
When I die all alone, I won’t have anyone to blame but myself.