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A Closer Look: Something in the Balete Tree

Playwrights’ Corner

On Tuesday, November 5th, The Lark will hold a public reading of Ren Dara Santiago's new play Something in the Balete Tree, as part of our Playwrights' Week 2019 festival! In the play, Nicholas takes a one-way ticket from Harlem to Manila, in order to find his mother and meet his pen-pal, Miyuki, while in the spirit realm of Kulam, Prince and Eve Angel are trying to figure out what this underworld is all about. To give you a closer look at Ren's process, fellow Playwrights' Week writer Omar Vélez Meléndez interviewed her about.... Check out what they had to say below, then join us for the reading!

OMAR VÉLEZ MELÉNDEZ: You know, I have a feeling that a lot of people won't know that you and I share at least half of our ancestry with Puerto Rico. However, the fact that both halves of your family come from two geographically opposed countries (The Philippines, being the other country) that BOTH suffered the same colonial rule under Spain at some point just blows me away. It's cultural diversity at its finest with a common fight against colonialism that supports and justifies it.  Given that Something in the Balete Tree is a dive into your ancestral history, did you come across something in your research or writing process that spoke to both Puerto Rico and The Philippines in an ethereal, weird, spooky way?

REN DARA SANTIAGO: Thank you for these beautiful questions. I am so excited for your play and so happy we get to share the same reading day! Ight, Omar. Coming with the big big questions! The most accessible parallel between the Philippines and Puerto Rico is their histories of revolution. They’re rebel cultures, and I’m so proud of that. I want to get into preservation in a less overtly-political sense… So, I grew up connected to my Rican side, though they lived far away— same place as your characters in We Built Our Homes Near Kingdoms of Animals and Magic, actually.  My Filipinx side, I wasn’t as close to, spiritually. Writing this play was 100% my way to connect with my heritage. The reason a story in PH came before PR is because over there, is because the preservation of cultural diversity is respected by the government. Not only is that untrue here, but because of their many islands, you can find indigenous tribes still functioning independent of modern society today. I wanted to begin honoring that, because so many cultures are susceptible to erasure, and the Philippines is at risk of losing their history as well.

The practice of Kulam(Pagkukulam) directly aligns with Brujería. I believe both are derived from Yoruba religion— the first peoples of The Philippines were Negritos, who originally migrated over from Africa before the islands split. I was raised understanding that Africa is the origin of man, so that didn’t connect my bloodlines any more than another ethnicity. But! I recognized how Spanish colonization and the subsequent wave of Catholicism succeeded in white-washing both systems of belief: Brujería became Black Magic, as did Pagkukulam. You know what I’m saying, the systemic demonization of African worship that calls to question our connections to spiritualism and nature has always been a custom I am keen to dismantle. I consider myself an animist. There are ways in which the indigenous worship of magica baja— using earth and spices and oils to conjure healing salves while praying to beings that ­represented nature— connects the soil, through the ocean, not only echoed across my hereditary hemispheres, but within my innate belief systems. I have always felt connected to darkness and the healing derived when we delve deeply. It echoes the state of our country right now— we are facing our darkness: in acknowledging the post-racial America of the 90’s was a fallacy for some and an insult for others, we are facing what seems to be a never-ending cascade of dark realizations; that money and power breeds more money and power and neither make room for the bountiful love or innovation from ethnocultural communities. Within our darkness, lies the truth. I hope that is clear throughout my play; within character’s nature, complexions, and practices.

OVM: I've read a bit on the beautiful magic of Kulam. However, you transform this bit of folklore into a whole world within your play. Can you tell us more about your relationship to Kulam and what made you turn it into an entire realm?

RDS: Thank you for this. When I started this journey, I knew how to say three phrases in Tagalog and I knew how to make chicken adobo and my favorite dish was called dinuguan, which is a blood stew. I knew they had a female president way before we even tried it. I knew they were conquered by Spain, just like PR. I knew they had the second largest Child Sex Trafficking industry world-wide. The rest started because I knew Eve Angel represented one of my protagonist’s trauma— when someone develops PTSD, a memory splinters inside of their brain. I also know it feels like your soul splinters out and gets trapped in the world. It feels invisible, you never know what will trigger it, and that can feel like a haunting. I have experienced episodes that feel like demons are coming to get me, or time is starting to slip into other dimensions. That fracture, that slip led me to researching what monsters and demons lived in the land over there. When a friend told me Kulam existed over-lapping on the human realm, I thought it would be a very honest way of representing the national traumas of my people. I do not view this in a disheartening or negative way, perhaps that’s thanks to my privilege, being racially ambiguous as a kid and being a U.S. citizen: I have enough stamina and enough support to face our countries’ traumas head-on in an attempt to find the truth and collectively heal.

OVM: Your text is clearly against Rodrigo Duterte's (The Philippines' current President) policies in ways that allow anti-Trump commentary to seep in as well. It seems that anywhere you go these days a Trump-like, Trump-ish leader is waiting on the other side. So, how are Trump and Duterte similar or different? What should we take away from Duterte's rule in The Philippines?

RDS: I am against extrajudicial killings, which feels like it shouldn’t have to be said. But that’s my way in to the injustice; one that feels personal and raw. Here, the killing of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters goes ignored or justified by those in power— the media and the law-makers. In the Philippines, I was able to complicate my argument because although ethnic groups are very diverse, everyone is Filipino; what separates people is class. Over there, shabu is an epidemic similar to meth over here and Duterte’s war on drugs was his claim to fame even as mayor of Davao, before he ran for President. Duterte targeted those connected to the cartel, read their names on public broadcasts, and let vigilantes execute them in the streets in the dark of night. No one is going after these vigilantes, these murderers. In Davao, the people supported him because the cartel was truly brutal. In the slums of Manila, they also support him. The difference being Trump is rich and Duterte came from relatively nothing. Trump and Duterte rose to power in similar ways; as populists, as marginal victors in an oversaturated battle for power, and with radical, violent promises. It is imperative that we complicate the narrative of Good versus evil, of a singular villain… Our problems in this country do not end with defeating or dismissing Trump and to believe so is not only naïve, it’s dangerous! Throughout workshopping this behemoth of a play, I want to make the character’s arguments on Duterte as complex as possible, so we can access our own complicit passivity, find our revoked agency, and dismantle the societal structure that keeps racism, classism, and prejudice in power.

OVM: And finally, what do you hope Filipino-Americans take away from this play?

RDS: I think legacy. I wrote this so we could take up a whole lotta space, so… Yeah. Be complicated. Understand our complicity, our inheritance, our multitudes and our destiny.

Thank you for these questions and for letting me talk for a while.
Thank you so much for reading my play.