Presented by Harlequin Theatre Guild (HTG) under the Culture and Arts Office, a four-show rerun of Ang Huling Mambabatok was staged at the Teresa Yuchengco Auditorium (TYA) last November 16 to 17. Written by Em Mendez and directed by Romualdo Tejada, it starred HTG members Stefanie Lim, Sheilette Barcelon, Alexa Faith Samodio, and Jastine Alfonso.
Ang Huling Mambabatok centers on Apo Whang Od’s dream of becoming a mambabatok, an indigenous leader who practices the art of tattooing. For the Butbut tribe in Buscalan, Kalinga, these “tattoos” or batok are an important aspect of their cultural heritage. Apo Whang Od has gained international fame for her mastery of the art and as the sole practitioner left from her generation.
Told almost entirely in Filipino, Apo Whang Od’s story is framed within the larger narrative of Philippine colonial history, with conflict stemming from internal and external forces.
Throughout it all, Apo Whang Od’s dedication to her dream, to being her people’s mambabatok, was frequently challenged. In her youth, she showed great interest in the art of pambabatok even though she was discouraged by her father. Instead of following his wishes, Whang Od chose to follow her heart and pursue what she truly wanted in life.
Beyond her father discouraging her from pursuing her dream, there was the looming presence of modernization to think about. As the influence of modernization started creeping into her village, new problems arose. The influence of the West and perception of tattoos gained traction among the people in the Butbut tribe, and Apo Whang Od had to make a decision: preserve her tribe’s long-held belief that the tattoos were for only for the Butbut, or share her tribe’s culture to outsiders.
Her decision could help give her village more income, or it could open her village to exploitation. Such was the decision that rested on her shoulders. This is her story.
Flashbacks to scenes of her life unfolded on a stage augmented with smooth, mountain-like designs divided into two set pieces. The smaller terrain was Apo Whang Od’s isolated space, giving the impression of watching over the tribe. Meanwhile, the larger mount allowed characters to escape behind its elevated back ledge rather than utilize the usual side exits, and its wide U-shaped curve up front paved a path for the cast to seamlessly flow through during the group musical numbers, which were a pleasure to witness.
The well-orchestrated harmonies in big group performances fittingly opened and closed the show, reminiscent of folk songs and community-wide, immersive celebrations. Powerful, too, were the renditions from the Apo Whang Od personas whose stellar voices rang with clarity; these melodic monologues aptly expressed heartfelt sentiments that built the humane complexity of her character. Even the senior Apo Whang Od, in character with a feeble and elderly voice, conveyed emotional intensity and inner strength with her vocal performance.
Incorporating comedic dialogue into scenes of heightened tension kept the narrative from becoming gravely melodramatic, and the cast was skillfully able to deliver on both the humorous and emotional facets without it feeling jarring. These lighter lines also introduced recognizable tropes into the story, so the characters’ actions seemed more familiar and easier for the audience to identify with.
The actresses portraying Apo Whang Od were given ample time in the spotlight to shine as distinct individuals, but their riveting performances were elevated even further when interacting with one another. Her dream was the common thread that fastened the three stages of her life together—from the adamant, determined, aspiring mambabatok, to the strong-willed woman who chose her craft over her lover and made him respect that choice, and finally to the celebrated torchbearer of a tribe’s tradition and culture.
Whang Od’s journey could resonate with individuals in different ways, presenting a gripping balance of steadfast ambition, burdening decision-making, and clinging to the familiar amidst changing circumstances. Ultimately, Ang Huling Mambabatok showed that chasing one’s dreams is not an easy road, but pursuing them would later bring fulfillment.
The production urges its audience to recognize the cultural significance carried by the batok. Ang Huling Mambabatok is as much a literary piece as it is a tribute to Apo Whang Od and the Butbut people’s culture, epitomizing how these collective memories can live on for so long as the narrative continues to be shared. Although a decent grasp of the Filipino language is necessary to fully appreciate the show’s message, the opportunity to listen to the Apo Whang Od’s story is not something to be missed should another set of reruns be held in the future.