On June 19th, the opening night of the Lift Off! Festival, a packed Cahoots Theatre held the first public reading of Jo SiMalaya Alcampo’s play, “Hilot Means Healer.”
In post-WWII Manila, Flor, a manghihilot (healer), has taken in Alma, an orphan. When a stubborn young man named Alfredo steals vegetables from her garden, Flor and Alma teach him about nature, love, and healing.
After only four hours of preparation, the cast pulled off a heartfelt performance.
From Karen Ancheta’s frightening, vampire-like aswang to Jennifer Villaverde’s touching performance as Flor, to the humorous interactions between Anthony Malarky’s guilt-ridden Alfredo and Lana Carillo’s spirited Alma, the actors created memorable characters who co-existed with the spirit world.
“Back in the day, nature was really trusted and revered,” said director Nina Lee Aquino. “Jo’s trying to look at where magic is reality.”
“Hilot Means Healer” was strongly rooted in Filipino culture and indigenous history.
The California-based Center for Babaylan Studies was one of Alcampo's inspirations. She admired their work in correcting stories where the babaylan were mis-labelled as monsters or witches.
In pre-colonial Philippine society, Alcampo explained, the babaylan were women healers and connections to the spirit world, and were equal to datus, or male chieftains.
“Flor, the manghihilot, is training Alma in the spirit of the babaylan,” Alcampo said, referring to a scene where Flor brings Alma to the Pasig River to heal the river with water lilies.
“The Pasig River smelled like decay and dead bodies for three years after the war,” said Alcampo. “I wanted to write about what the Pasig might have been like before the war, and how it affected the psyche of Filipinos.”
Alcampo was also inspired by family stories about the Japanese occupation and the Battle of Manila.
While most second-generation Filipinos may find that their families are unwilling to speak about the past, Alcampo explained that silence may be a way to move on.
“Not talking about it is part of the effects of war. Internalizing is a way of coping with these things. We’re still affected by it, even though we feel disconnected from it,” Alcampo said.
“That’s what I want the play to be about. Nothing is really lost. We can reach out with one word, one story, one sound. Stories of war resonate in us.”
“Hilot Means Healer” has been in development since 2011, when Alcampo participated in a play creation unit at Carlos Bulosan Theatre.
With the support of the Diaspora Dialogues Emerging Playwrights program, Alcampo became the playwright-in-residence at Cahoots Theatre, and found valuable support in their Hot House play creation unit.
Dramaturge and Cahoots Artistic Director Marjorie Chan helped Alcampo throughout the development of the play, and was delighted to hear it out loud for the first time.
“‘Hilot Means Healer’ is a unique project from the Filipino perspective on the effects of war and the healing that is possible,” said Chan.
“It is a script that I have long been a champion for, so the question is not if we will eventually produce it, but when.”
This article was originally published in The Philippine Reporter on June 23, 2015.