Ming Ming by Steven Fernandez: A Review

“If I dream beautiful dreams, I wish I would never wake up.

Steven Fernandez stood out as a genuine intellectual when I met him back in 2011 during the Taboan Writers Festival. Slacking off from my duties as head usher (intellectual growth is always a good excuse to slack off), I sat in during one of the Festival’s breakaway sessions where he happened to be talking. It was a session about folklore, and when I asked about writing stories on folk characters that do not involve canonical plot lines, the playwright professor from MSU-IIT distinguished between the transcription and “trans-creation” of folklore. The answer struck me, and I knew I had to read something written by this man.

My search for his work wasn’t too difficult. He was a Palanca awardee, and the one act play that won him first place, entitled “Ming Ming” was readily available online. The Palanca Foundation has made it accessible here.

Dialogue almost always dominates the narrative in drama. But Ming Ming pushes this importance of dialogue to the limit, and I am amazed to find that this little discovery is proving to be one of the most technically accomplished pieces of literature I have ever read.

Ming Ming tells the story of three generations of a royal family in Muslim Mindanao: the eponymous 18 year old Ming Ming, her mother R, R’s mother I and R’s uncle P. The play already wins in choice of spectacle to highlight: there are several main dramatic events involving these four characters. I and P’s unfulfilled love, the tension between Muslim Mindanao and post-war Philippines and P’s consequent involvement in the Muslim insurgency, R’s involuntary arranged marriage to a homosexual, her affair with her Economics teacher and eventual pregnancy, the resulting scandal of her pregnancy, Ming Ming’s own love affair with the man tasked to watch over her in her confinement, and her eventual death. Each of these subplots are interesting enough to be developed as a play in their own, but together they form a colorful family saga set against a backdrop of the modern Filipino woman’s struggle against a predominantly patriarchal  Muslim society.

But that’s not yet revealing the true strength of the play. Ming Ming’s plot unfolds in a thematic rather than chronological manner, and it unfolds purely by the lines. I had earlier mentioned how it pushes the limits of the importance of dialogue, but “dialogue” would be an inappropriate term, for there is little interaction between the characters. The characters in the play, though all on the stage together, speak in their own realities, and the story emerges from their dialogue with themselves or with unseen characters. That is not to say of course that the lines are all random, for there is indeed a consistent flow. There is a mirroring of situations between generations – daughter is suffering what her mother has gone through, and all are facing the same difficulty – and the playwright takes advantage of this by ordering the sequence of dialogue to the expression of these problems. It needs to be noted how astounding the command of dialogue is, and the playwright is at least sharply aware of pragmatics if he does not have a thorough background in linguistics. Lines are taken out of their pragmatic context and arranged thematically, but in the process the lines end up “bringing” their pragmatic context along, and the reader is led to realize the events on his/her own. The playwright pushes the reader’s involvement so much that he has even given the reader the role of seeing the distinctness of each character, by simply giving them letters for names (most ominously the letters R.I.P, initials of that thanatological Latin epigram). To a great extent, the play is also successful in post-structuralist standards,  and it qualifies as what Barthes describes as “writerly text.”

But it does well of course to remember that this is a play, and as such the performative spectacle indicated in the text is also noteworthy. The playwright also proves to be an accomplished director, and “auteur” rather than playwright would be a better term for him. The stage instructions are conscious of stage atmosphere, and there are specific provisions for evocative elements. The use of white scrims  in particular will invariably lend the performance a dreamlike sfomato of sorts. The presence of Tonongs, the spirits hovering around the main characters (and a manifestation of the playwright’s own “trans-creation” of folklore!), not only contributes to the eerie, dreamlike atmosphere of the play, they also add to the story’s unfolding as they mime some key scenes . Most prominently, the play pays great attention to the cultural milieu in which it is set, and there is no mistaking from the music, the visuals projected on the scrims, even in some of the dialogue, that the play tells a Muslim Mindanao story. It is a great shame I have not seen the piece performed!

And ultimately Ming Ming contributes to Mindanao’s self reflection, as it reveals one of the struggles of its people. The three generations of women are faced with the hard life dictated by their culture’s norms. But that is not to say that the men have it easy: P’s own happiness with I was also taken away by the demands of the culture. Consequently, the play reveals that the underlying problem is not caused by certain people (indeed, no “villain” appears in Ming Ming) but by a conflict between the unfolding of the human desire for self fulfillment and outdated but fiercely maintained cultural norms that define people. Like all good literature, the play asks more questions than gives answers.

My discovery of Ming Ming is why I continue to explore literary works. If not for the rather random reason of reading something by someone I met, I would not be able to read what is no doubt a monumental advancement in Philippine Literature, the best play I have ever read.


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