Baby Barredo: ‘All the tears, the laughter, I’m telling you, it was all worth it’

You have lived theater to the hilt

Oil portrait of Carmen 'Baby' Barredo by Victor 'Cocoy' Laurel in 1967. (Photo by Isidra Reyes taken at Expressió, A Laurel Family Art Exhibit)

I first saw Baby Barredo with Zeneida “Bibot” Amador rehearsing a play at the Mater Dei Auditorium of St. Joseph’s College in 1967.

It was Strindberg’s Miss Julie and as Bibot recalled to me the Repertory’s struggling days, they only had an audience of seven on opening night, most of them the ushers.

At that time I had just settled down in Manila from Catanduanes and curious about theater happenings.

The last Repertory play I watched was August: Orange County, in 2014, with Baby Barredo as the grand matriarch.

I was speechless after the play. La Barredo was at her best as usual but I thought she had given more of herself in this theater piece.

On a late Sunday afternoon at around 6:45, I saw a post which read: “RIP Tita Baby.”

But her niece Cara Barredo posted that the actress “hasn’t been pronounced dead.”

Baby Barredo with nieces Prima Ballerina Maniya Barredo and Cara Barredo. (FB page of Cara Barredo).

I went to bed early relieved to know the theater icon was still alive. At the rate people are dying in this pandemic, death notices have become common occurrences in Facebook.

However, when I woke up in the middle of the night, Monday, at 1:35, I saw the post: “Repertory Philippines deeply mourns the passing of Ms. Carmen “Baby” Johnson Barredo. She passed away peacefully at 7:37 p.m. (May 23) from multi-organ failure. She was 80 years old.” (Baby Barredo: April 28,1941-May 23, 2021)

From Baby’s children, Charlie and Etienne, came this FB message: “It is with great sadness that Etienne and I announce the passing of our dearest Mama. She died peacefully at 7:37 pm at St. Luke’s Hospital in Taguig from multi-organ failure brought about by sepsis. I was by her side and her family and theatre children were with her in spirit and song. We will announce additional details in due course. Thank you for all your loving words and prayers. Rest in peace Mama.”

All at once, some chapters from her theater life came rushing by.

It is not surprising that her sudden demise is generating a flood of remembrances from the theater people she trained and had worked with, as well as theater fans.

Repertory (Rep) artistic director Liesl Batucan told The Diarist.Ph: “In her last moments, I prayed with her. I could not stop crying. I wished that I could hold on to her forever. I will never forget the depth of love in her eyes. The strength of her spirit. Her heart was as big as the ocean. A raging mighty ocean. I will love her endlessly. She entrusted me with the artistic directorship of Repertory Philippines. Her race is well run, she blazed the path, she did it with the fiercest of love and passion, and we have now lost a great titan of Philippine Theater and the Arts.”

Stage and film actor Cherie Gil said Barredo’s demise was a big, sad loss for theater. “So sorry for all of us who have had the privilege and honor to be taught and mentored and inspired by this amazing strong woman.”

Actor Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo considers Barredo as her second mom “who taught her everything in theater.”

Baby Barredo with Menchu Lauchengco. (Photo from the FB page of Menchu Lauchengco)

From actor-director Chris Millado came this recollection:

He thought he would never get to call her Tita Baby. “She was always THE Baby Barredo of legendary theatrical fame. Having been nurtured in Filipino language theater, the English language productions of Repertory Philippines belonged to the extreme opposite of my artistic and political spectrum, or so I thought. Up until Liesl Batucan, who then was Artistic Associate, broached the idea of directing August Osage County for Rep’s 48th Season.”

Baby Barredo with the power cast of August: Osage County in 2014 directed by Chris Millado. (Courtesy of Repertory Theater)

The offer came with a non-negotiable casting choice: Baby Barredo would play the lead role of Violet Weston, the malevolent and drug-addled matriarch who sets the domestic drama spinning down to hell. “I had my doubts. The role was physically and emotionally demanding. Besides having the most lines, the character dialogue required razor-sharp delivery and sporadic descents into gibberish as the cocktail of drugs supposedly took effect. It also had a big fight scene to end Act One. And in the final scene, the character had to manage several flights of stairs up to the attic which occupied the highest point on the set. Tita Baby, then was past 70, harbored an earnest smoker’s cough that would send her huffing and puffing after taking a few vigorous steps across the stage. After confiding with Liesl, she just knowingly smiled back as if to say, ‘She can do it.’”

As Millado recalled the days before opening night, Barredo—after the week of blocking rehearsals—was the first one to be off-book, sending the younger members of the ensemble scrambling to have their own lines down. “Miguel Faustmann who designed the set, built a cubicle on the second level of the set fitted as a fully working dressing room where Tita Baby could do her quick changes, wait for cues and smoke to death! Katsch Catoy’s lighting benefited from the endless haze created by Tita Baby’s cigarette smoke wafting from behind the painted panels. During the final scene, Tita Baby, crawled up the stairs to the attic unaided, with Angeli Bayani’s character meeting her halfway as the lights faded out. Then she had to navigate her way back to her cubicle in complete darkness to get ready for the curtain call.”

Singing actress Gia Macuja Atchison posted on FB how having been in Rep for several years taught her some of the best lessons in life. She recalls her Tita Baby reminding her —“Gia, your energy drops the minute you have speaking lines… the confidence you have singing should match what you have when you are speaking!”

The next thing she knew, she was Elmire in Tartuffe, a lead role in a classic straight play by Molière where she had absolutely no choice but to speak!

Gia’s message to her mentor: “Thank you Tita Baby. You may now take your final bow and rest in peace.”

Actor Jamie Wilson: “From Tita Baby, I learned how to sing and still tell a story and to be able to use my voice with the emotions required for the song and the role. Godspeed, Tita Baby. I will forever be thankful for your guidance, your advice, your unfiltered directness, and most of all, for your fierce love. You’ve been one of my second moms for as long as I remember. You’ve had a hand in making me the man I am today. On stage and off, you were always there. I cannot thank you enough. And I will miss you terribly.”

From actor Jeremy Domingo: “Tita Baby, thank you for the training, the guidance, the mentorship, and the many lives you helped shape and transform through Repertory Philippines. This is truly the end of an era.”

La Barredo could spot one stray note in a chorus of 40 singers

Looking back, I realized Baby Barredo was not just into theater. She was a singing dancer in Filipinescas, the touring dance company founded by National Artist for Dance Leonor Orosa Goquingco.

One of the few times I saw her with Bibot Amador was when they directed the opera Rigoletto at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Colleagues noted La Barredo had a perfect pitch which made her the perfect director for musicals. She could spot one stray note in a chorus of 40 singers.

Maestra Dalisay Aldaba, the first Filipino to sing Madama Butterfly in New York in 1948, told me Barredo actually studied voice at Indiana University and had sung a lead role in Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona. She also studied voice with Fides Cuyugan Asencio, music with National Artist for Music Lucrecia Kasilag, and drama with National Artist for Theater Daisy Hontiveros Avellana.

Maestra Aldaba dropped a bomb in one of our tete-a-tetes: “The reason Baby (Barredo) left opera was because of the intrigues in the local opera world.”

What were the interesting chapters in her life for over 50 years of theater?

Speaking in the special anniversary of Repertory Philippines in 2017, the actress reflected: “All the hardships, the crying, the tears, the laughter, I’m telling you, it was all worth it, and we will do it all over again just for all of you. Our vision was to start an acting company that will carry all the tradition of telling stories here in the Philippines.”

In that anniversary, Barredo hoped the new breed of actors of Repertory Philippines would have the passion the pioneers had. “You have to have passion in whatever you do because if you have passion, then you will exceed and excel.”

She had made enough theater memories to last her twice a lifetime.

One was when a foreign royalty attended the performance of A Little Night Music. “This European prince (I don’t remember from what country) attended the play and he was so taken by the performance especially since Send in the Clowns was his favorite song. He came up on stage and congratulated us all and invited us for refreshments at the Intercontinental Hotel.”

Also memorable to her was after the performance of Woman of the Year in 1984. “Three Reppers—Terry Legarda, Jerome Macuja, Annabelle (who handled the lights), and Terry’s brother-in-law—died in a car crash after the performance. The outpouring of love and respect from the Rep actors was moving and heart-breaking.”

Through the years, I have followed Barredo’s theater journey from the Mater Dei Auditorium to the Insular Life Auditorium in Makati, which was the early venue of Repertory productions, to the Edsa Shangri-La Plaza in Mandaluyong, and finally at Stage One, Greenbelt, Makati.

I missed her Queen Guinevere in Camelot with the Lancelot of Peque Gallaga.

Baby Barredo as Queen Guinevere with Peque Gallaga as Lancelot (Photo from Manila Nostalgia FB)

I saw her Evita at Rizal Theater, her Maria Callas (Masterclass) and her last as Violet Weston in August Osage County.

Other roles were equally memorable: Maria in The Sound of Music, Anna in The King and I, Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables and Bloody Mary in South Pacific, among others.

On the day Baby Barredo’s death was confirmed, I could only dash off a poem –

Watching a play
Is like living other’s people’s lives
On this marked proscenium
Lighted and darkened
As lives come and go.

There is nothing like joy and grief
Illumined in theater.

There is nothing like
Fortune falling
And luck abounding
As refracted in theater.

Your life was theater
As you lived it.
You taught by example
You inspired by being one of them.

For 80 years
You lived a thousand lives
On stage and off.
From ‘Who Is Afraid of Virginia Wolf’
To “August: Osage County,”
I have seen your best
Which is pure theater
Of a lifetime.
It is a coincidence
Theater died an early, if, temporary, demise
In the time of the pandemic.

Then again
I see life as
Theater illumined
And darkened
As chapters in everyone’s life
Come and go.

You have lived life
You have lived theater to the hilt.

When theaters reopen
(And hopefully it won’t be long)
You will be remembered
As one who lived
A thousand lives
While living your own.

Such is the beauty of theater
Life is relived
Sorrow and joy amplified
Or toned down
And realizing
One of the lives portrayed
Was inherently your own.


Read more:

Lockdown innovations in Philippine theater: ‘There’s no more turning back’

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves the opera, classical music and concerts, and who has had the privilege of meeting many of these artists of the performing arts and forging enviable friendships with them. Recently he’s been drawing readers to his poems in Facebook, getting known as the ‘Bard of Facebook.’

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