I tend to imagine that these times of political and socio-economic crises demand of creative work an amount of relevance, where it is easy to pinpoint films and TV shows and writing that tends towards escapism, refusing to speak of issues that are urgent and important.
But escapism is also exactly what we need in times like these, when only the wealthy minority can live oblivious to the rising cost of basic goods and the utter lack of public services, when only the rich might navigate nation and not see the majority who are living below the poverty line. It makes sense to the rest of us who live each day struggling to make ends meet to want to escape by watching Transformers, or uh, Sarah and Coco in Maybe This Time (walang basagan ng trip).
We are a time after all when anyone can be a writer and get published online, no matter that one might write about the delusion that the country is not poor, because look at those malls and condominiums! Look at those sold-out concerts with expensive tickets!
One realizes how complicit the culture industry is in maintaining the status quo, and making everyone believe that things are okay. Government has never had it this easy – think Kris Aquino’s every-scandal and how it is perfectly timed with an issue blowing up in Malacañang’s face.
Introducing Barangay Burot
But cultural production is also what allows for the surprise of relevance, from songs like “Sirena” or “Upuan” which speak of nation even as it takes a stand for equality (“Sirena”) and against corruption (“Upuan). Gloc-9’s songs are successful interventions on the status quo, the thinking that allows the minority who are powerful and rich to turn their eyes away from the real state of nation, because they can.
This is what Kleptomaniacs takes from.
And it’s not just rap as a form, as it is the local hiphop and rap culture as created in nation, not at all about bling and pretense, as it is deeply rooted in nation’s poverties and inequities. Written by Layeta Bucoy, Kleptomaniacs’ Barangay Burot is your every-informal-settler-community, the kind that has been around long enough to have its own tiny chapel, its own school, a young generation that grew up as childhood friends.
It is the story of Tabo and Vicky, (played by Nicco Manalo and Thea Yrastorza), who fall in love and get pregnant, to the consternation of family and community that doesn’t believe in hope and imagine only their present to be their future, too. But Tabo is naïve (to put it kindly), a simple-minded man who knows only love and how it has made him wish for better. His parents though are dismayed: how can their son who has only recently gotten himself a job, now want to have his own family? Vicky’s mother is angry: how dare you get my daughter pregnant! She is my one hope for getting out of here!
The endless cycle
It is familiar, yes? But also it is new because it carries with it the weight of poverty as we rarely see it portrayed on these shores, where it is funny because absurd to have a segment of the population this poor. It is funny because Tabo’s hope can only be hilarious in the midst of hunger and need, his naiveté out of place in this space he navigates.
But also one finds that it is entrapment: there is very little hope here, because there is little hope in getting out of here. And that is not so much about literal space, as it is about the community’s economic state, where it subsists on its own underground economy of market and sari-sari store, pedicabs and manininda. It is clearly an endless cycle, one that is inescapable.
This is why Tabo as the lead is hilarious in his naiveté and ignorance: there is no space for hope here. It is also why he is the perfect (anti-)hero, because all he holds in his hands is love. Where that brings him is this story’s unraveling.
Which is to say he imagines that the absent City Hall is where he can go, to ask for help, look for a job, whatever it takes to provide better for his family-to-be. The community laughs at his ignorance: they won’t give any of us the time if day.
What brings the City Hall to Barangay Burot is hauntingly familiar here, to anyone at all who has eyes wide open to the tragedy of governance that has no real compassion for people, politics that is bound to corruption. Kleptomania here is not so much within the community, as it is the hand that rocks the cradle, as it is that shadow of a government that exists only for itself.
Where does one go? Tabo asks. More importantly, what can we do?
The relevance of an all-original musical like Kleptomaniacs might be easy to pinpoint in the context of current events, where the PDAF and DAP funds have made us all realize how much money we truly have, and how it is money that does not go where it should, it is money that is not used towards making people’s lives better.
To me though, its relevance goes beyond current events as context, as it is about its existence as counterpoint to current media spin about the state of the nation, as it is about its daring to talk about what is silenced about nation, because too difficult, because neglected. That it happens in rap and hiphop is to layer it with a contemporaneity in form, making its story more available to an audience – young and old – even as it does not shove the discussion of corruption down their throats.
This is Kleptomaniacs. Hear us roar.
Layeta Bucoy’s Kleptomaniacs runs from July 11 to 27 2014 at the Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It is directed by Tuxqs Rutaquio, composition and arrangement by Jose Carlo L. Frios and Nina Virgin, musical direction and co-arrangement by Jed Caballero Balsamo, dramaturgy by Katrina Stuart Santiago, choreography by Nestee Mamaril Gamilla, costume design by James Reyes, and lighting design by John Batalla. Tickets are available via Ticketworld, at P1000, P800 and P600. A re-run is scheduled for November 2014.
*published in the RadikalChick Column in The Manila Times, July 10 2014.