‘Gapok’ and micronarratives of poverty

By IMA ARIATE
Bulatlat.com

‘Gapok’ presents the every day struggles of an urban poor family in a community that faces the threat of demolition. It is an intense twenty-minute play of raw human interactions between a mother and her two sons. Their exchanges are informed by peripheral characters: the children of the elder brother; the sister/daughter who is a helper of an affluent household; and later on, the younger brother’s fiancee whose fate intersects with the not-so-remote plight of the ephemeral, quiet, and sick father.

Those who are seemingly relegated to the background also take center stage as the powerful and unapologetic dialogue characterizes them with more depth and dimension. They don’t remain in the shadows of the narrative. They take an active part in its eventual unfolding.

Even in its compact form, ‘Gapok’ successfully shatters two popular notions about the urban poor who are fighting to keep their homes in the midst of aggressive corporate encroachment supported by the state.

First, the stigma of being dimwitted and short-sighted is countered by how the family deliberate on choices that are necessitated by destitution. The mother and the elder son find it rational to resort to collective action while the younger son would rather work for the same company that wants to wipe out their houses with the hope of earning enough to buy a way out for him and his family. Like most people in the same situation, it is a tough choice between struggle and collusion.

In the play, the position to struggle is a legacy, implying years of planning, action, and negotiation, all of which require analytical skills and a clear sense of foresight. Moreover, going for relocation is untenable and is tantamount to accepting government neglect. Sites are in far flung areas. These lack or have no basic social services; are far from schools and workplaces; and sit on geographically risky areas such as fault lines. The contraposition taken by the younger son is driven by tactical and urgent needs, one of which is the impending birth of a child, and possibly the fatigue of being involved in a long-running resistance.

This brings us to the second point. ‘Gapok’ deconstructs the idea of the urban poor as having homogenous interests and needs (echoing Ernesto Laclau’s ‘unity of class’ which is, more often than not, symbolic).

The political cleavages within the family is obviously a consequence of individual persuasions and particular interests. This fragmentation exposed by ‘Gapok’ makes the symbolic real and emphasizes the micronarratives of poverty.

On hindsight, the play cleverly avoids the pitfall of glorifying individual agency. The accidental shooting of the younger brother’s fiancee directs the audience’s attention to the reactionary state’s disregard for human lives. This unfortunate event will definitely affect his future plans. It is instructive to note Milliband’s insight on this: decisions are made because of the structure of the society. The matter of “selfishness” in a capitalist mode of production is not due to an individual’s choice. It is because of the policy decisions that it dictates.

Progressive Brechtian elements of ‘popular realism, avant-garde techniques, and accessibility’ to the target audience are evident in ‘Gapok’. The family is central because it is highly relatable and is embedded in Filipino culture. The minimalist set and a generous smattering of cuss words go against hegemonic standards of polite high art. Pooling actors and actresses for Tanghalang Mulong Sandoval from the ranks of the urban poor and foregoing tangible barriers between the audience and performers are empowering.

As Sining Kadamay and Art Action Network’s first community play, ‘Gapok’ belies its denotation of being weak. It has the potential to mobilize urban poor residents to strengthen their resolve in order to craft their individual and collective counternarratives against capital and state oppression.()

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