Theater group brings Christ's passion to the boondocks

by Frank Penones Jr.

PILI, Camarines Sur – Residents of several mountain villages here witnessed for the first time for the past thirty-eight years a live performance of a theater group which had been depicting the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ on Holy Wednesday.

The Lenten presentation was made through the invitation of Fr. Tito Oliva, the parish priest of Nuestra Sra. De Los Remedios in barangay Curry based here. The barangay is named after the first governor of the Province of Camarines Sur, George Curry, an American military officer who eventually also served as the 18th Governor of New Mexico when he returned to the U.S. mainland.

“We have to be creative in making the passion and death of Christ alive, so I invited our group,” said Oliva.

Oliva was one of the original cast members of the youth group which started performing Christ’s passion in the streets of Iriga in 1979 and for which it was popularly called a “street passion play.”

They were recruited from the participants of the summer Youth Encounter Program of Fr. John Tria, who perished in 1995 when the military plane he boarded carrying relief goods for typhoon victims crashed at Tancong Vaca mountain range in Libmanan town.

A PETA alumnus, Bonnie Cruz, handled the initial directorial job of the presentation which was inspired by the “tanggal,” a traditional Lenten spectacle popular in the Bicol region.

In its early years, the performances were supported by the local chapter of the Jaycees. Eventually, the members took over the management of the annual Good Friday event, including solicitation of financial support.

At one time, now Channel 5 host Nina Taduran, also an original member of the group, even shouldered the whole expenses of the presentation, including an out-of-town trip to Baguio.

The presentations also gained media attention, including a write-up in a national magazine, as well as inclusion in a drama monograph by Nick Tiongson.

They also inspired other theater groups in the city and in the neighboring towns to have similar Holy Week presentations.

In the 90’s, the group reorganized themselves into an all-male Friends for the Love of Jesus choir and regularly sang at the 7:000 p.m. mass at the St.Anthony of Padua Parish.

This led them to invitations to various engagements like singing at weddings and other events, at the launch of the Gold Service of Philtranco at the Coconut Palace in Manila; and serenading Boy Abunda and then Ms. Cristine Bersola for a feature shot in Iriga.

They also sang the garbage segeration campaign song of the city government, titled Suway-kin-Suway.

Dennis Caayao, an accountant of the Department of Education in Iriga and who has taken over the directorial job 35 years ago, said these presentations have become a life-time commitment.

“My teenage son is now even also part of the cast. This is a proof how we have imbibed the lessons we want to show through these presentations and how we want to continue bringing them to other places, to other streets,” he said.