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THE PEAL OF THE BELLS

Theater Review
-Dan Caldwell

Is benevolence more admirable than treachery? Is 38 greater than 50,000? The Pintig Cultural Group gives dramatic, unexpected meaning to these paradoxical questions in The Bells of Balangiga, a musical which earnestly portrays the spirit of Filipino resistance to U.S. colonialism during the Philippine-American war.


Most Americans know little about this turn-of-the-century war, and almost none know the story of Balangiga and the brilliantly-planned uprising of its residents against a company of U.S. soldiers. Even among Filipinos, its story is largely unknown, as U.S.-controlled education in the Philippines omits mention of this small town's act of resistance and the U.S. military's monstrous retaliation.

The playwright, [Rodolfo Carlos Vera], went directly to the people of Balangiga to gather accounts used in The Bells of Balangiga. Along with other historical sources, these accounts tell of the plot devised by the people of Balangiga in 1901 to lure U.S. troops into their town and lull them into a sense of complacency. Then the bells of the church rang out, signalling the Filipinos to launch their surprise attack in which they slayed 38 U.S. soldiers.

In Bells, the chorus asks the audience, "Treachery or heroism, what will your verdict be?" The U.S. military in 1901 considered it treachery, and its hysterical response was the slaughter of 50,000 Filipinos on the island of Samar.

The bells of Balangiga have been held in Cheyenne, Wyoming, since American soldiers removed them from the church where they sounded the alarm. In the lobby of the theater where the play is running there are recent clippings from the Cheyenne newspaper (and the Wall Street Journal) debating the meaning and the fate of the bells.

The play invites us to collective reflection on Filipino and American history. Let me share some personal reflections in hope that they will contribute to this collective process. As a white middle-class American male, I am engaged in a long-term effort to figure out how to make a positive contribution to this world.

Within this Filipino story, I see concrete historical portrayals in which one may find a clue. On the one hand, I see good intentions that fail to be good enough. The leader of American troops in Balangiga is an earnest believer in benevolent assimilation, but his best efforts at being fair and civilized tragically fail to transform the role he plays as an agent of colonial domination. On the other hand, some American soldiers recognize that Filipinos hold self-determination priceless, and they see unjust irony in imposing colonial rule on the Philippines when America's original ideal of political existence was independence from colonial rule. The play shows white American men serving classic roles of domination over Filipino people, and at the same time shows their distress and unhappiness, as well as their aspirations to decency.

Look at a map and you will see that the outline of the Philippines has a shape roughly similar to Vietnam, shifted over by 900 miles. This war shows historical parallels as well, shifted by about 60 years.

Pintig portrays the characters of this history with remarkable balance, and it asks all its viewers -whether American, Filipino, both or neither - how they can come to terms with their history. It does not render the characters, or the viewers, equal. While every individual has a history, this story also shows forces larger than any individuals - the markets, land and resources of the Philippines that the U.S. wanted to control. These forces have shaped the reality of each of us differently.

After each performance the cast holds an open forum with the audience. One night, a man suggested the play ought to add scenes of the U.S. slaughter of 50,000 Filipinos. I spoke with one of the cast members, Megan Macaraeg, about why the massacre of 38 U.S. soldiers is vividly depicted on the stage, but the retaliation is simply declared in a solemn chorus. She explained, "It is difficult to find symbols that will do justice to genocide on such a scale." Indeed, if it takes one stage to represent the demise of 38 human beings, a thousand stages would not suffice to depict the deaths of 50,000. The musical shows the actions of the people of Balangiga, who defy the Americans, proclaiming "You're not all-powerful."


Bells of Balangiga played in November 1997 at Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division. It then toured throughout Chicago and the Midwest during the spring of 1998.

For deeper understanding of the Philippine-American war and Anti-Imperialist opposition to it, check out Jim Zwick's website. http://www.boondocksnet.com/
(This is one of the best, most informative websites I have ever seen --dsc)


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