A play unfolds with the shocking death of a young college student, Ramona. The play’s subsequent trial frames a Pilipinx community’s struggle with internalized anti-blackness. After the trial, seven angry jurors discuss the fate of the accused, Ramona’s Black boyfriend Zach.
This scene comes from Bayanihan’s 27th annual Pilipino Cultural Celebration (PCC) performed at the mainstage of UC Santa Cruz Theater Arts on April 27 and 28. Bayanihan wrote a play for this year’s PCC to address issues of colorism and anti-Blackness within the Pilipinx community.
Titled “Noon at Ngayon,” or “then and now” in Tagalog, the play included musical and dance numbers by groups within Bayanihan, including Kasama Ballroom Dance Troupe, Pagkakaisa Dance Troupe (PDT) and Isang Himig, an acapella group.
The plot plays with an ambiguity around Ramona’s death. Doubts about the prosecution’s case that Ramona’s boyfriend Zach killed her increase a year after she dies, as her friends and family begin to realize they may have rushed to judgement based on their own internalized anti-Blackness.
“[Anti-Blackness] has been a persistent issue in the Pilipinx community for a long time,” said Jerell Macaraeg of the play’s acting troupe People Power. “It’s very important to talk about anti-Blackness, especially now in our political climate with [Rodrigo] Duterte and Trump as President it’s important for us to force our community to think critically about their position in society.”
Members of Bayanihan focused the show on “calling themselves in,” encouraging the audience to self-reflect and recognize that falling victim of colonial mentality is a systemic issue and not an individual one, according to PCC co-chair Mariel Mastrili. One way Bayanihan did this was by revising the script after critiques of Zach’s character being a one-dimensional plot device arose, and reaching out to several Black organizations on campus, including a member of Black Men’s Alliance and workshop facilitators from the African-American Resource Center.
“A lot of people recognize that we can’t tell the experience of a Black person because we aren’t [Black] and it was really important to ensure that we weren’t making things up,” said Bayanihan co-chair Abigail Bernardino. “Rather it was just sharing from our experiences.”
The play was a dialogue between members of the Pilipinx community, juxtaposing the main character, Ramona, an idealistic college student with family and friends who do not approve of her school project on building solidarity between communities of color. Maribel, Ramona’s mother, expresses concerns that Ramona’s project is interfering with her school work and tries to change the subject by bringing up how her sun-darkened skin is affecting her perceived beauty.
“Try this new skin-whitening cream, na?” Maribel says, urging her to keep quiet about her solidarity project.
Centuries of colorism and anti-Blackness reared their ugly heads in court in Ramona’s murder case as well. The prosecution working for Ramona’s bereaved family, delivers its closing statement in confident tones, clearly outlining its case. The defense is ill-prepared and unable to get out from behind its notes. In deliberation, the jurors bristle with rage and ultimately condemn Ramona’s boyfriend of murder despite flimsy evidence.
A year after her death, Ramona’s friends and family begin to realize that in their rush to judgement, they may have wrongly accused Ramona’s boyfriend, Zach. In spite of the arguments her friends and family had with her, they decide to organize around Ramona’s advocacy for solidarity between communities of color. They arrange a fundraiser to start a scholarship for students of color and band together to work on Zach’s appeal, grappling with their own internalized anti-Blackness.
“I really like how we’re addressing anti-Blackness within our own cultures. As a Latino myself, seeing how Filipinos had Spanish colonialism really affect their culture and shape it to where it is,” said UCSC student and attendee Carlos Villalobos. “I see a lot of similarities and a lot of struggles trying to preserve cultures.”
Organizers stressed the importance of using theater as an educational tool and learning from the play.
“Decolonizing ourselves and moving past our anti-Blackness is a lifelong commitment,” Mastrili said. “It doesn’t just stop on PCC. It’s also us as a community making that commitment to change.”