Playwright and actor Abi Padilla embarked on a new adventure when she was required to do a solo show in the Studio 58 theatre program. This assignment, which was a graduation requirement, offered an opportunity to do things that she had never explored on-stage before.
“I wanted to do martial arts; I wanted to rap; I wanted to dance hip-hop,” Padilla tells Pancouver over Zoom. “I also wanted to play a female character that was not sexualized and just pure 100 percent being badass.”
This was the origin of her play Grandma. Gangsta. Guerilla., which will have a staged reading on Monday (February 5) at the Advance Theatre Festival.
“It’s essentially about a grandmother who has dementia and escapes a nursing home because she misses her grandchildren,” Padilla says.
In researching the play, she felt that she needed to speak with her grandmothers to learn more about their lives in the Philippines. Even though Padilla spent her first 23 years in Quezon City, she was still surprised by what she heard.
It turns out that her paternal grandmother is actually from the province of Capiz in the Visayas. This is a group of islands in the middle of the Philippines. People from this part of the country speak Capiznon whereas Padilla spoke Tagalog at home while learning English at school in Quezon City.
“There’s this running joke in the Philippines that when you’re from Capiz, you’re part of the aswangs (shape-shifting evil creatures in Filipino folklore),” Padilla says with a hearty laugh.
Her paternal grandmother’s mother and father were actually stepbrother and stepsister to one another. That was another monumental surprise not only to Padilla, but also to her cousins.
Grandmothers intrigue Padilla
Meanwhile, her maternal grandmother speaks Ilocano because her family roots go back further north on the island of Luzon.
“But she told me, ‘I don’t want to teach you Ilocano because you’re already in the city. I don’t want people looking down on you,’ ” Padilla reveals. “It is a problem that still persists in the Philippines.”
Padilla is intrigued why her grandmothers denied showing these aspects of themselves.
“I feel that’s another thing that really drew me to this project,” she states.
Both grandmothers lived in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation of the country from 1942 to 1945.
“Whenever I would ask them about those things, you can see right away how their body just stiffens,” Padilla says. “And then, they don’t know what to say. You can see the effort for them to change the topic right away.”
Still, she heard certain snippets. Her maternal grandmother said that when the Japanese raided their village, her uncles and aunties would ask her to hide the land titles. That would ensure that after the war was over, these relatives would still have proof that the land belonged to them.
“My paternal grandmother was also hiding—in the rice fields,” Padilla adds. “I believe that some of her friends were taken. That’s about it. They never talk about it.”
During those years, brave Filipinos mounted a strong resistance to the Japanese. Although her grandmothers were never guerillas, Padilla has read biographies of so-called “comfort women” who turned into resistance fighters.
History doesn’t define Filipinos
Padilla also has a good reason for including Gangsta in the title of her play. It’s because there are some gang elements. Plus, this word makes her think of someone who’s tough even after experiencing tremendous hardship.
“Those characteristics are something I actually endowed the main character with,” she says.
Padilla recognizes that the Philippines has had a difficult history of occupation not only by the Japanese, but also by Spanish and American colonizers.
“I feel like it’s easy to be drawn to the horrible things that have happened to people,” she acknowledges. “I also have to remind myself that my grandmothers aren’t just what happened to them.”
Padilla insists that she will not reduce her elders in this way.
“How would I remember my grandmothers?” she asks. “I would remember their feisty sense of humour; I would remember the taste of their cooking; I would remember the times that we played together… At the end of the day, I would want to remember them for all the good things that they did for me.”
The Advance Theatre Festival presents a staged reading of Abi Padilla’s Grandma. Gangsta. Guerilla. at 7:30 p.m. on Monday (February 5) at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts. Visit the centre’s website for tickets.