Story telling through theater
Performing theaters on Guam became a home to many plays and playwrights, both international and local. As an island that continues to emphasize and perpetuate the custom of story-telling about local history, performing theaters on Guam are havens and are great venues through which stories and cultural thoughts are expressed. Although originally a western idea, the people of Guam have adopted theater as a home for Chamorro plays, many of which are unpublished.
Many plays written in the Chamorro language and by Chamorros were presented in the community and were central to parish churches’ activities. However, details such as who wrote them, what the play was about, why it was written, and for what occasions are questions that only generate ambiguous answers.
Most Chamorro plays performed in earlier times were not documented. The only play that was documented in the Territorial Sun on July 27, 1969 (predecessor today’s Pacific Sunday News) was “The White Lady on the Bridge of Maina, an opera by Linda Cruz, performed by the Guam Symphony. It was a love story between a taotaomo’na (spirit) girl and a Chamorro man.
Appearing in another issue of the local newspaper in October 4, 1975 was a comic love story written by Jesus Naputi entitled “To Build an Island.” In addition, a printed announcement of the play, “The Bells of St. Joseph Cathedral” was found. It recounted a story of a village church and the inner turmoil of a girl heroine.
”Guahu Taotao Tano’,” (I am a Person of the Land) written by Dr. Robert Underwood, was the first full-scale Chamorro production known. It incorporated long forgotten chants and had original dances portraying various Chamorro eras and traditional costumes. This production became an official part of the fourth Festival of the Pacific in Papeete, Tahiti in 1985.
Although involvement in theatrical performances was considered to be babarihas, (nonsense) in the early days, it became an avenue for the rise of consciousness whose core principles is the revival of Chamorro culture and language.
One of the most commonly used theaters is University of Guam Island Theater. This theater is a part of the University of Guam Fine Arts Theater with about 200-seat capacity. Although it is often used for plays produced by the theater department, local community plays are also often held in this theater.
The Gifted And Talented Education (GATE) Theater in Tiyan in central Guam exemplifies the community’s support and nurturance of budding and promising talents. GATE, part of the Guam Public School System, is an organization that continues to recruit and nurture young students who show potentials in the areas of art, music, and theater. In an effort to provide an avenue for young theater performers, the GATE Theater was built and just like other established performing theaters on Guam, it has become a venue for many events from musicals to plays.
The most recently built state-of-the-art performance arts theater is located on a public school campus in the village of Sånta Rita-Sumai, in southern Guam. Southern High School Performing Theater, which seats 500, is a part of a $1 million school. This theater was the venue for many international and classical shows including Puccini’s “La Boheme” in 2001 and the popular Broadway hit “The Lion King” in 2002. However, due to lack of funding to maintain the Southern High School’s facility, the theater is often unavailable for its intended use.
Chamorro language plays
Peter R. Onedera, one of the most influential playwrights in Guam, has written, directed, and produced numerous plays, most of which are written in Chamorro. He is currently a full-time Chamorro instructor at the University of Guam College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.
Onedera found his love of performing arts at the age of seven and got involved in every aspect of the theater, from backstage production to acting, over the years. Although the predominant attitude on Guam was that theater was insignificant because it did not support a decent livelihood, Onedera saw the importance of theater as an avenue through which the Chamorro language can be expressed, revived, and perpetuated. Onedera had noticed the lack of written literary work by Chamorros while working for the Chamorro Language Commission early in his career.
As an undergraduate student at the University of Guam, Onedera became active in the theater arts. He began writing his own plays even though a major or a minor in theater was not offered at the University of Guam. He has written seventy-five plays ranging from one-act to full-length plays in both Chamorro and English. Thirty-five of these plays were produced and presented to an audience. Twenty-seven were also directed by him.
One of the most important and controversial plays, was ”Ai Hagå-hu!” (Oh! My Daughter). This play was about Chamorro comfort women during World War II who were forced to provide sexual and other services to the Japanese soldiers, became the talk of the town. Onedera became encouraged by the public reaction to pursue his craft and gave him pride in his mission to tell Chamorro stories through this medium.
Onedera sees a tremendous value that performing theaters on Guam can offer. Chamorros can see themselves through this form of storytelling which allows them to identify and apply critical thinking as they laugh, cry, learn and enjoy portrayals of relevant issues and concerns that show cultural values, politics, legends, beliefs, history and lifestyle that is unique to being Chamorro.
The next curtain call
Storytelling is a custom treasured in Chamorro culture. Storytelling can happen anywhere, and on any given time or occasion. However, the theater brings life and more color to these enchanting stories and in turn, the audience’ eyes glisten in excitement as they see a true reflection of their own identity and culture on stage. In this sense performing theaters on Guam have an immeasurable value and future.
By Julius Sotomayor Cena
For further reading
Kihleng, Kimberlee S., and Nancy P. Pacheco, eds. Art and Culture of Micronesian Women. Mangilao: Isla Center for the Arts and Women & Gender Studies Program, University of Guam, 2000.
Onedera, Peter R. ”Egge’ Gi I Kestumbren CHamoru.” MA thesis, University of Guam, 2007. (Text is written in the Chamorro language.)
–––. “Theater in a CHamoru Sense.” Unpublished paper, University of Guam, 1999.