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A play featuring Philippine political activist, author and award-winning actress Mae Paner, more popularly known as Juana Change will be among the theatrical showcases in the Melbourne Fringe Festival from 13 to 30 September. The Fringe Festival, now on its 36th year, is a coming together of people involved in independent arts and is expected to draw 360,000 people to Melbourne.

Tao Po, headlined by Paner, is a monologue featuring four different stories of extrajudicial killing stakeholders in the Philippines. Mae, who has conducted research and interviews with real-life characters with writer Maynard Manansala, gives life and voice to four characters, a classic example of art imitates life.

Tao Po, a monologue by Mae Paner | Photo by Raffy Lerma

Mae takes to stage the first character as a photojournalist whose sanity is questioned by the paper he serves, who morphs into a Zumba instructor who is haunted by the ghost of her husband and son, who transforms into a policeman/vigilante who is tasked to uphold the law but at the same time is a hitman of supposed drug users and finally becomes a child, whose friends have fallen victims to the drug war, a collateral damage, so to speak.

Extracting their creative juices, the tandem created the character of the Zumba instructor as a parody to a woman who witnessed her husband and son killed by a raiding team of 15 policemen conducting their tokhang, at a time when she was only dressed in underwear. To reenact the silhouette of that scene, a woman wearing only in bra and panties and the caricature of policemen asking the addicts who surrendered to do a routine exercise, the Zumba instructor character was born.

Tao Po, a monologue by Mae Paner

The stories of the four characters were poignant and even depressing at times, so it was quite a roller coaster of emotions for Mae. She narrates, “Imagine me doing the Zumba and delivering the lines while ‘emoting’ the sentiments of the character talking to the ghosts of her dead husband and son that finally she would come out to seek justice.” The jovial and chirpy Zumba instructor meets the conflicted and miserable wife and mother, and this she had to do without depreciating the depth of the message, that EJK has diminished our humanity and how do we bring it back.

Even as Mae is a firm believer that human rights should be upheld, she was careful not to vilify the character of the police/vigilante. In that portion of the monologue, the policeman was faithful to his duties and found it honourable to be at the President’s beck and call to get rid of society’s addicts. The policeman even obliged to having his addict brother killed but had to spare the life of a drug pusher, as a ‘balato’ (reward) to his ‘Padrino’. At this point, Mae says that you begin to empathise with the police, who in the eyes of those who object to EJK, is the villain but in the end is also a victim.

Mae was quick to clarify that this is not anti-DDS (Duterte die-hard supporters) or meant to anger the President’s supporters. She confesses that she has locked horns with other Presidents on other issues, even saying, “I’m known for that”. Of all the faults of the President to the country, she says that she feels most strongly for and most pained about EJK. On the 10th anniversary of the Juana Change Advocacy this year, she decided to take on this project.

While the President enjoys massive support from among the overseas Filipinos, she reckons there will be those who strongly feel that human rights need to be addressed. She will be glad if there will be DDS who will watch the show, or those who haven’t decided on issue, for them to appreciate that this is happening in the country, start a discourse about the issue and maybe make their position about it.

After the show, Mae, Maynard and Raffy Lerma, a photojournalist who took images of EJK on-the-job, will meet the audience for a talk back. This is an opportunity for the audience to dialogue with the actor, writer and EJK documentor and understand the issue more in depth.

Tao Po, a monologue by Mae Paner

This show, Mae admits, takes a lot from her with the profound emotions she needed to tap in order to tell these four stories. She narrates, “Patang-pata ka (It is very draining) in the end for one, I’m alone and you have to dance, act and emote. But your spirit is so alive because you’ve done a performance helping the victims of killings. You feel fulfilled and purposeful.”

The show is scheduled on 14 and 15 September, 6-8pm at the Footscray Community Arts Centre. The language will mostly be in Filipino, with English supertitles. Tickets are at $40 each or $32 concession.

On 16 September at the Millennium House, Mae will be conducting a theatre workshop for those who wish to use the arts for human rights advocacy. It will be facilitated with Maynard, Ros Bower awardee Bong Ramilo, and Melbourne-based actor Alfred Nicdao. The cost is $20.

Interested parties may contact the Australian for Philippine Human Right Network, presenters of the show, through Melba Marginson on 0418 389 135 or Gabby Ocampo 0411 278 738.

Photos by Raffy Lerma

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