Darna In The Time Of Duterte
I knew Darna was badass the first time I saw her as a child in the 80’s. She was Wonder Woman but with a Filipino twist—where Wonder Woman proudly brandished her starry, blue knickers, Darna had a little bit more modesty: she had a yellow sash flowing from the gilded belt of her bikini bottom—which conveniently covered the crotch area and fell to just below the knee. Darna could fly; she could wield shurikens from her belt like a ninja. She could block bullets and blast things with the giant ruby embedded in her headdress.
Considering Darna’s been around since 1950—who knew?—the national obsession has seen no real signs of letting up. There’s a new movie coming up, and a new dance musical, Ding Ang Bato! just premiered onstage at St. Benilde’s SDA theater on May 15, 2018. Produced by Benilde’s Arts and Culture Cluster (BACC), it’s a play mounted—with a lot of awesome professional help—by young performers for a young audience. And yet the first time Narda transforms into Darna, the excitement cuts across generations; people in the audience, young and old alike, cheer and clap as though they’re watching the UAAP finals. I remember seeing and hearing the same reaction to the Eraserheads during their concert years ago. A famous singer stood next to us and whispered to his friend while nodding approvingly at the quartet onstage: Atin yan e. Tayo ‘yan e; which, I imagine, is the same thing people feel about Darna.
Narda magically transforms into Darna for the first time
With book, lyrics and stage direction by Chris Millado, Ding, Ang Bato! targets the millennial audience with a brief origin story—the play opens with how Ding is given the magical stone by engkantos. Ding is hearing-impaired, which allows the musical to explore non-musical forms of art—in this case, dance.
The plot then devolves into the pitfalls of the digital age where characters are slaves to their cell phones, social media image, likes and shares. This micro-view is then blown up into the age-old battle between good and evil, Darna and Valentina, and—in a not-so surprise twist, the Philippines and its president. In a moment of brief defeat, an image of Darna carrying a placard with the words, Darna, ‘Wag Tularan is flashed on a screen.
Valentina and Arman do a love duet
Talk about tapping into the national pulse and national sentiment: no art or writing these days can or should be divorced from politics. But let’s not get into that—or rather, let’s get into that as though we were going to a cocktail party and not being armchair activists on Facebook.
Darna was created in 1950 by Mars Ravelo. A warrior from outer space, her earthly alter ego is a barrio girl named Narda. We know how Narda turns into the bombshell hero after she swallows a magical white rock, and goes on to fight criminals and supervillains. She defends the weak and hapless from evil forces—all while wearing red boots, sometimes with heels on them.
Narda, for her part, is a virtuous barrio girl who helps her Lola Asay care for her brother Ding. Ding and Narda are both orphans and use their skill sets to help lola fund their daily needs (she sings; he plays the harmonica). But of all the barrio lasses, the celestial stone falls into Narda’s hands. This tells you something of her character—celestial energies don’t pick bad-hearted sissies to empower. They pick the good and the brave. They pick who would fight for what’s right, imbued with superpowers or not.
Lola sings to Ding and Narda about engkantos in the woods, setting the stage for other magical and otherworldly happenings
Allegedly, Ravelo wanted Darna to be the woman version of Superman.
Superman was an American invention, and the Philippines was an American colony. To go with the thinking of the time, the logical counterpart of a male superhero from the most powerful nation on earth was a female superhero from a subordinate country. To the minds of some comics creators. a global superpower was male, and a colonized superpower was female. Yes, it was the 50’s, so the idea of women as the weaker sex wasn’t so much in vogue as it was accepted fallacy—but in the Philippines not much has really changed.
What, for instance, would Duterte think of Darna if they had it out after a bust in Caloocan or a tiff at the Supreme Court? Would he ban her from Malacañang like Pia Ranada, or threaten to slap her like he did U.N. rapporteur Agnes Callamard? Would he oust her from the planet for being one of his greatest critics? Or would he simply give her a wolf whistle for being political and pretty?
Darna surveys the scene and knows she’ll win the day
Darna is the superhero either for the second decade of the new millennium, or for the next four years in the Philippines. As a woman, I think it would be the ultimate poetic justice if a female superpower put a proper chauvinist in his place, all while solving the country’s problems. It’s a wish and a fantasy, the way all superheroes are wishes and fantasies—but until the next crusader with a yellow loincloth saves the day, what we’re all being called to be is brave. Maybe it’s not Darna we need, it’s Narda we need to be.
Cover image by Deiniel Cuvin
Photos courtesy of Dindin Araneta