The premise of Dear And Unhappy is a simple question: what of Josephine Bracken? Rizal’s wife and / or lover, depending on who you believe. Or depending on your internalized racism against the Irish woman our National Hero was enamored with — it is after all why Bracken remains marginalized in narratives about Jose Rizal’s life; it also has arguably spawned multiple texts about Bracken — the less we know about someone the more exciting our stories about her.
This play is no exception. It speaks of Josephine during the time she was part of the revolutionary forces that was fighting the Spaniards post-Rizal’s execution, imagining her as lost and alone in a dark forest, separated from her comrades. She is dirty and hungry, and is already on the brink: speaking to herself, to her God, to Joe, to the darkness. It is in this state of (in)sanity that the apparition of the Babaylan appears to Josephine, allowing her to discover the magic she holds in her hands: not just as Babaylan herself, but also as possibly someone who might change the course of history as we know it to unfold.
Here is where the conversation becomes a bit more complicated, not on the stage, but in terms of history. The choice given Bracken was one between the Spaniards and the Americans, where an alliance with one — coming from a European woman as negotiator — would mean being “saved” from the oppressions of the next colonial master. That Bracken refuses this role she is being given is powerful, sure, but that there is no real sense that this is anchored on a believe in the revolution, and neither is the discussion between her and Babaylan nuanced enough to include the complex events that led to the eventual “turnover” of the Philippines from Spain to the US, including but not limited to internal conflict among the revolutionary forces, the class violence among them, the personal interests outweighing the sense of nation and independence — exactly the same things that continue to ail our governance and politics.
The foretelling works in favor of this play: we already know the historical outcomes after all, and are being made to believe a fictional possibility for a character otherwise silenced by history. But it is also history that works against this play, as it foregoes important historical nuances that would have also complicated this discussion, and highlighted how the choice could not, would not, have been this simple even for fiction, given facts.
Yet Dear And Unhappy remains an enjoyable play to watch, with a Bernardo Bernardo playing the Babaylan to the hilt, but more importantly with Cris Villonco, who performs irony like no other, allowing us to imagine a Bracken who might have been in over her head, and lost and confused, but also one who knew of nation and nationalism, of anger and revolt, despite being unhappy, even as she was held dear by Rizal. In Villonco’s hands Bracken is human — despite the magic in this play, the Babaylan included — and you are thankful.
If that was the point of this re-writing of history, then it was a point well made. ***
Dear And Unhappy is written by Carlo Vergara and directed by Ricky Villabona for Virgin Labfest 13.