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Volunteer-devotees stage theater play on the Passion of Christ

Key people from the play shared their faith experiences, prayers and hopes to Radio Veritas Asia on March 23 In a radio conversation on DZSB 104.1 Spirit FM. (Photo: Madonna Virola)

A group of volunteer devotees stages a community-theatre musical play dubbed “Pater Dimitti Illis” (Father, forgive them) on Holy Wednesday in the Philippines’ Mindoro Island, a place known for its pious missionaries.

The Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic country in Southeast Asia, with around 85 million Roman Catholics, representing 78.8% of its population of 108 million, according to a 2020 census.

Catholic religious practices are an essential part of the Filipino way of life. Among these practices is the Senakulo (Passion of Christ), a centuries-old Filipino tradition of the dramatization of the life and passion of Jesus Christ during the season of Lent or Holy Week.

In a radio conversation on DZSB 104.1 Spirit FM on March 23, key people from the play shared their faith experiences, prayers, and hopes with Radio Veritas Asia.

 Volunteerism and Bayanihan

One of the core Filipino values, Bayanihan, is a tradition of communal work and unity. “Bayan” means "community,” and Bayanihan is the spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that moves Filipinos to help one another without any expectations of material rewards.

This community theater initiative started with a “call for volunteer artists” by a team of friends behind the play.

“This production is very different from the previous ones I handled. Everyone knows I have a temper. This experience tested and further developed my patience. Knowing that everyone is a volunteer, I just do deep breathing whenever we have a hard time getting everybody together on time for practice. This is far from my usual self,” said  Chavit Zulueta, creative director of the play.

He added, “Whenever we wanted something seemingly impossible done, we just surrendered it to God. The volunteers also needed support; of course, we also need resources to cover food, transportation, costumes, backdrops, lights, sounds, and other production costs.”

“We also plan to involve the audience in some parts of the play, such as the multiplication of bread. We ordered hundreds of pieces of bread to share with everyone,” said Zulueta.

Surprisingly, he said they received financial and material support as well as volunteers from people all over Oriental Mindoro, like from Pinamalayan and Baco towns, and even as far as Manila and Bacolod in the Visayas region.

“For this production, we accepted everyone who volunteered,” said the director.

The Oriental Mindoro Butterfly Society, Inc., an organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, gay, and transgender people in the province, of which Zulueta and artist Nestor del Mundo are also members, initiated the play.

This is in cooperation with First District Congress Representative Arnan Panaligan, his representative, project director Atty. Lorybelle Tanyag Panaligan, and Father Nestor Adalia, rector of the Sto. Nino Cathedral of the Apostolic Vicariate of Calapan.

The scriptwriter and head director is longtime cultural worker and former seminarian Benito “Banjo” Cleofe.   

The newly formed Volunteer Artists of Oriental Mindoro comprised the cast and crew, who vividly depicted the passion and death of Jesus Christ.

Mother Mary and women’s role in society

Pam Servando is a professional artist who decided to waive her professional fees for her role as Mama Mary in this play.

“I used to act as Mama Mary in the production of Jesus Christ Superstar in Manila, but I was a paid actor then. For this one, I am giving my services pro bono. I’m performing for Him (God), and that’s why I consider this my way of giving back to Him. I commit to doing it every year,” she said.

Asked how she sees Mary and how she prepared to play the role, Servando said, “I studied her character and looked into her relationship with Jesus Christ. I also include my personal experiences as a mom. What would my reaction be as a mother? She knew that her son would die. In other movies and productions, her character was subtle. But for this play, I wanted the Filipino audience to adapt to her character, so I included some characteristics of a Filipino mother so that they could relate more easily to me and the character of Mama Mary,” she said.

She added, “Personally speaking, my character is very different from hers. Since we are also holding the play in honor of women’s month (March), it’s also like we are doing this in honor of women, especially mothers like Mama Mary.”

For Tanyag-Panaligan, “Being the mother of Jesus, she already had that strong faith. She was aware of the intended outcome from the beginning. She was prepared. I can compare that with how women nowadays can foresee and be prepared for whatever is to come. Having that strength, like Mama Mary, gives them the ability to overcome every challenge for their children and family.”

When challenged to imagine a world without mothers and women, the young Jesus, Jhazyn Cedric Clerigo, 18, said, “Each gender is unique; the world would be lacking with only males in it. Women can do things that men cannot do. I cannot imagine a world without women; we (men) cannot exist by ourselves.”

The young cast as shining examples

“I believe that each person has a ‘golden mine’ that only needs to be cultivated and tapped; that’s why we need to have programs like this to help each one discover that and shine,” said Zulueta.

“Even those without a background in acting but who have potential, are available and are willing to try, I mentor them. That’s the challenge for theater artists like me—to bring out what we foresee in them with the help of everyone around them. Once that happens, that’s very fulfilling for us,” said  Zulueta when he was asked about his experience working with first-time volunteer actors whose ages ranged from 9 to 78 years old.

The youngest cast member is Aria, Servando’s daughter, who recently had to go through an eye operation due to an accident. “Her greatest worry then was not about her health but whether or not she could push through with her part in the stage play,"  said Servando with amusement.

Clerigo stated that assuming the role of Jesus Christ challenges him to be a good role model in real life. Outside the play, he is a volunteer artist and a student leader at the Catholic school, Divine Word College of Calapan, where he is in his first year of taking up a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering.

An advocate of youth empowerment and confidence-building, he invited young people to join undertakings like theater arts. “Theater acting is good for youth like me.  I get to learn the lessons from the Passion of Christ, and I get to improve myself. That’s why I encourage fellow youth who may be hesitant to join activities like this to join, so they can showcase and enhance their talents. I am also very happy to be learning from veteran actors. I believe that I still have untapped potential; that’s why I keep trying to improve myself through pageants, modeling and acting. To enhance myself and to share more of myself.”

Tanyag-Panaligan added, “What amazed me with the children and youth cast is that instead of just going out with friends and spending time on their gadgets, they chose to spend their free time doing this.”

Fulfillment in God’s work and prayer intentions

The joy and fulfillment among the cast are so palpable throughout the discussion that one wouldn’t imagine the sacrifices and challenges they had to face to mount the play. Each member has also made it their yearly devotion for Holy Week.

“This work is very fulfilling for me. Not everyone has access to this kind of opportunity. It’s my way of giving back, and it also helps me and others grow in faith, so I’ve also committed to doing this every year,” said Tanyag-Panaligan. 

“The talents that God has given us must be shared with others. This is also our way of showing our appreciation for His blessings and sacrifices, just like what we see in Pasyon de Kristo (Passion of Christ),” added Clerigo.

The guests concluded the program by sharing their prayer intentions, which included the continuation of the initiative through government-supported youth programs focusing on community theater and the production of the play in other municipalities with the support of local government units.

They also encouraged the parents to support their children in honing skills and talents through activities like theater arts.

The program also generated responses through its Facebook live streaming and simulcast broadcast on Calapan cable.  “Senakulo, part of Filipino identity practiced during Holy Week, must be revived!” Omar Uycoque, an instructor at the City College of Calapan, organizes a Pabasa in his village in Lalud.

Ayyi Gardiola, the community development professional and cultural worker, lauded the people behind the play: “Thank you for this love-offering of everyone involved in this Senakulo. Thank you for all your sacrifices and contributions. Long live the volunteers! Volunteers truly are the lifeblood of the community.”

During Palm Sunday mass, Rev. Nestor Adalia fervently invited parishioners of Sto Nino Parish to watch the community theater musical play “Pater Dimitti Illis” (Father, forgive them) on Holy Wednesday, March 27, 2024, at 2:00 p.m. (shorter version of the play) and 7:00 p.m. (full show) at the Oriental Mindoro National High School. Calapan Cable Community Channel 9 will also broadcast and replay the play.

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