Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Old Man With the Helmet

Friends at Tanghalang Pilipino in Manila remember the old man with the helmet. Wenceslao Rodriguez Sr. wore his military headgear during the gala of a play about men like him, soldiers who fought bravely for his homeland, but whose sacrifices have largely been forgotten.

Mang Wenceslao kept his helmet on for more than two hours during the premiere of “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street.” I had missed the gala last November. But the Tanghalang Pilipino folks described it as a moving and meaningful event, and a big reason for its success was the old man with the helmet.

He was from a poor community in the University of the Philippines area, and graciously accepted Tanghalan’s invitation to attend the first performance of the play based on my novel about World War II veterans (and beautifully adapted for the stage by Rody Vera and directed by Chris Millado).

The Tanghalan folks, led by creative director Nanding Josef, later became close to Mang Wenceslao. When the equity package was recently passed by the United States government, they thought he would at last get some financial assistance for his sacrifices. Unfortunately, he ran into a problem—there was another person with the same name and that had to be sorted out.

My friend Nanding said it’s not clear if Mang Wenceslao ever received the benefit which recognizes the courage and service of thousands of Filipino veterans. One day, he and other Tanghalan staffers got a text message from Mang Wenceslao’s family. He had passed away late last month. They were inviting his new theater friends to the 40th day commemoration of his death.

Before he died, his family told the Tanghalan folks, Mang Wenceslao often talked about “the tribute given to him at the CCP”—“iyong parangal na binigay sa kanya sa CCP.”

* * *

“Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street,” which starred veteran performers such as Bembol Roco, Tommy Abuel, Joe Gruta, Dido Dela Paz, and Lou Veloso, focuses on the plight for veterans who moved to San Francisco after they were granted citizenship by the US government. But the production itself exposed me and others from Tanghalan to the broader world of the beteranos.

For while thousands of Filipino veterans took the opportunity to move to America hoping to provide a better life for their families, many more remained in the Philippines.

Some of them belonged to the Defenders of Corregidor and Bataan, whose members survived the bloody battles at those historic places. Some of the group’s leaders and members came to watch the play last year. Some of their leaders enjoyed the show so much that they invited me and other members of the Tanghalan staff to their regular luncheon. When we met they also mentioned the plight of other veterans like Mang Wenceslao, who was struggling against poverty and whose contributions have been ignored.

The Corregidor and Bataan veterans later helped bring “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street” to the Armed Forces of the Philippines Theater last month, as a way to honor the beteranos, both those who now endure loneliness and isolation in cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles—and also the seniors still living in the Philippines, battling illness, poverty, and in many cases neglect.

Unfortunately, I also missed that performance. But I was happy to hear that, like the run at the CCP, the show was also well received. “Crowd loved it,” my friend Maricor Baytion, director of the Ateneo Press, which published the novel, said in a text message shortly after the performance ended.

“This is a funny yet tragic, sentimental, yet soul-stirring story all rolled into a two-hour musical play that portrays the vicissitudes of the aging, sickly, dying— and dead—Filipino veterans of World War II during their final years in their Powell Street hangout in San Francisco,” former President Fidel Ramos wrote in an op-ed piece for the Manila Bulletin.

If only Mang Wenceslao had been there too for another tribute to men like him. It would have been another proud moment for the old soldier, the warrior who fought bravely for his country.

No comments: