‘Grand dame of Southeast Asian theater’ nurtured puppetry theater for children that has lasted for generations
By: Cora Llamas
The passing of Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio, National Artist for Theater, founder of Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas, and University of the Philippines (UP) professor emeritus, on Dec. 29, 2020,w at the age of 90 was greeted with the appropriate mixture of mourning and acclaim.
Widely recognized as the “grand dame of Southeast Asian theater,” Bonifacio nurtured value-oriented puppetry theater for children for generations. As has been pointed out by Nicanor G. Tiongson, cultural critic and professor emeritus of the UP Film Institute: “The wonder of it all is that she sustained her mission, putting up her own puppet group and venue. All other puppet theater groups have folded up but her group continues to perform folktales as well as classics like ‘Sita & Rama: Papet Ramayana’ and the sinakulo during Lent. The writing and production of original children’s plays, especially through puppet theater, constitute her niche in Philippine theater.”
The aforementioned venue, which was a house near UP that was converted into a theater and made possible by government grants, was also named after her: Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Teatro Papet Museo. It was built in 2006, almost 30 years since she put up Teatrong Mulat, which her daughter Amihan Bonifacio-Ramolete now runs, in 1977.
Empower the children
While capturing and entertaining the minds of her young audience, her puppetry plays were also designed to empower children to take on life’s challenges, and consider the bigger world around them and the roles they could play in improving it—even during an era when the concepts of freedom and justice were hard to express.
Tiongson continues, “Always a mother before anything else, she used theater for teaching children values which were humane and antioppression. While activist groups were putting on anti-Marcos plays for adult audiences, she quietly did her part in raising social consciousness among the children.”
While Bonifacio immersed herself in and eventually taught Asian theater, specializing in the Japanese and Indonesian forms, she was first and foremost a patriot. Tiongson recalls that she was the first educator and playwright in her generation to switch from English-language to Filipino. During the height of activism in the 1970s, her book, “The ‘Seditious’ Tagalog Playwrights: Early American Occupation,” broke new ground and showed how unsung writers in the theater were exposing the abuses of American imperialism.
Chris Millado, Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) vice president and artistic director, concurred how Bonifacio broadened his horizons as her student in UP. “She introduced us to that part of Philippine theater history and balanced our training. Our exposure was Western drama and the Greek tragedies.”
Almost 50 years ago, just when now renowned theater organizations Repertory Philippines and Philippine Educational Theater Association were building their repertoire and their audience, the Teatrong Mulat founder was “searching for the Philippine identity of theater. She brought in the Asian perspective, a different way of presenting theater, and producing and illustrating it in her work.”
It is an understatement to say that Bonifacio was a prolific writer. She had written 44 plays, 26 books, one novel and 136 short stories. A majority of them were, unsurprisingly, for children and young adults. But her more adult material seared their denunciations of social inequality and injustice on their audience’s mind.
The National Artist continued encouraging her students, past and present, to grow with their art. Their “Tita Amel,” as they called her, had a motherly side that contrasted with the strict, tough-love approach that many directors and mentors at that time employed. Millado credits her for starting him in his playwriting career, by passing his script then as a young student to UP Writers’ Workshop, without his knowledge.
Bibeth Orteza, actress and playwright, and also a former student, described one of the readings that the future National Artist conducted when she took over from a director who could not be present at that time.
Orteza says, “She just didn’t just tell us what would work and what wouldn’t. She taught us, patiently explained what we couldn’t understand, saw through our obstinacy and ignored our yabang that insisted on what we wanted.”
Never a cultural snob
As she approached her sunset years, Bonifacio still found the time to participate in the theater community beyond her Teatrong Mulat, bumping into her former wards.
Former student Dennis Marasigan, now a veteran director, writer and technical director, says, “Despite her frail physical health, she continued to watch as many plays as she could. In 2015, when I was asked to recommend a possible recipient of the Philstage’s Natatanging Gawad Buhay Award, she was the first name that I mentioned.”
Despite her lofty stature and the many national and international awards she gained, Bonifacio remained down-to-earth and approachable, never becoming a cultural snob.
Orteza says that in the 1980s, when she shifted from drama to television and film, not all of her contemporaries were happy with that move. Then she bumped into her Tita Amel at UP Faculty Center. When Orteza asked her mentor tearfully if TV writing was acceptable, the older lady replied: “Aba, Bibeth. Lahat nang napag-usapan natin sa klase, magagamit mo sa daan-daan pang ‘Iskul Bukol!’”
Orteza perhaps captures the sentiments of many who had come under Bonifacio’s wing when she says, “I miss the good woman already. I cannot thank her enough.”