Baby Barredo was my mother. No, not my biological mother. My real mother is Viring, the singular, thoughtful, selfless, loving and practical mom who sired me, who in her heyday was a raving beauty gracing the society pages of broadsheets, and who to this day expresses sweet endearments as only she knows how.
Tita Baby was my mother in a very different way. She saw the birth of my career as an actor when I was assigned my very first leading role onstage, and she was my director. When I played Charlie Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, I was fresh off the college boat. She was unsparing in her supportiveness, but also withering in her criticism. It’s like my two mothers existed in two different worlds—one in a world of discipline and artistry, the other in a world of practicality and pragmatism.
I played her son in my very first major dramatic role, as Dillard Nations in Foxfire by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn, and she henceforth referred to me as her son (as she was wont to do to those who played her children—ask Audie Gemora). Tita Bibot (Amador) was a stern taskmaster who didn’t spare you from her colorful invectives just to get the performance that the material required of you. Directing Foxfire, she saw through my polite, obedient, cautious upbringing and sought to break it to liberate my courage as an artist. Quaking with timidity, insecurity and fear, I was often the target of her dripping sarcasm. She often turned to our stage manager Dodo Lim with a rhetorical question, referring to me in the third person: “Saang ahensya ba ito galing?” In short, where in the name of God did this thing sprout from?
Tita Baby, seeing me struggle through rehearsals, would often take me aside and gently give me pointers. She took to calling me and introducing me to people as “son,” as if she was proud of me despite all my flaws and godawful acting.
I built my artistic confidence over the years, thanks in large part to the nurturing spirit of Tita Baby, who proudly showed me off to friends and acquaintances thus: “Bart is my son! Look how he has grown! He was so timid in Foxfire, but now look at him!” If I could blush, I would have. I could only cringe in embarrassment the way I would every time my late dad (biological, that is) introduced me as “the theater star.”
To be fair, Tita Bibot, too, started manifesting her confidence in me by casting me in larger, more important acting roles, but even more importantly, by taking me into her professional confidence, asking my opinion on certain directorial aspects of a production, making me her assistant director (giving me a free artistic hand most of the time), and eventually giving me directorial assignments once or twice every Repertory Theater season.
By the time Tita Bibot passed away in 2008, I was already years into producing my own shows, directing and acting for most of the other Manila companies—Dramatis Personae, Tanghalang Pilipino, PETA, Dulaang UP, even the tail-end of Rolando Tinio’s Teatro Pilipino. With other Rep alumni, I helped found Actor’s Actors Inc., hoping to build a theatrical model that would march to a different drum: producing and directing shows that defied the conventional economic and marketing wisdom of the day.
I built my artistic confidence over the years, thanks to the nurturing spirit of Tita Baby, who proudly showed me off—’Look how he has grown!’
We set for ourselves the challenge of transforming “uncommercial” material into something that was commercially viable. We tried to do it by applying much of what we had learned in Repertory Philippines: principles of professionalism and polish, but applied to works meant to chart commercially uncharted territory.
I think Tita Bibot was none too happy that we were adding to an already overcrowded field of producers, vying for the attention of the relatively miniscule demographic of theater attendees. I once tried to tell her that we had no intention of “cannibalizing” the limited audience we all shared. I tried to explain that, on the contrary, our aim was to whet the appetite of a bigger, hopefully newer crop of attendees that could jump from one show to another weekend to weekend, the way it works on Broadway or the West End. That in fact, we were practising what she had taught us: to be courageous in the face of all odds, like she was at Rep’s genesis.
She looked at me as though I were crazy, talking about something she had absolutely no idea about. Of course, I felt like a total idiot, which, knowing her, was probably the exact effect she was aiming for.
Tita Baby, on the other hand, was spectacularly generous in her solicitousness. She would ask enthusiastically about the new play I was directing/producing outside of Rep, curiously inquiring after new actors/actresses that the company had never worked with, especially those that had made their names in mainstream showbiz. She would ask me to ask one or two of them if they would like to audition for one or another upcoming play in Repertory’s season. She never failed to tell me how proud she was of how far I had come from the time I played her son Dillard in Foxfire. She never stopped proudly showing off her “son” to others.
They were our parents. They had passed on to us the theater DNA, the Repertory-Baby-Bibot artistic genes, to be exact
When Tita Bibot died, I was tasked to deliver a eulogy on behalf of all those performers who had been under Repertory’s wings at one time or another. I started off by stating that Tita Baby was our mother, and Tita Bibot our father. I had to take a long pause to choke back my tears before I could go on to deliver the eulogy. I choked because although I had written the eulogy as metaphor, it dawned on me at that very moment that there could not have been a more undeniable truth. They were our parents. They had passed onto us the theater DNA, the Repertory-Baby-Bibot artistic genes, to be exact.
Some of us have turned out to be replicas of the father; I once promised myself I would never become Bibot, then one day, while yelling at my cast, I realized in abject horror that I was Bibot! Others have taken after the mother—Monique Wilson’s or Pinky Amador’s or Menchu Luchengco-Yulo’s strength of character, sweetness, and iron will are so akin to Tita Baby, it can be disconcerting. And by the way, as with all headstrong daughters of headstrong mothers, there have been generational clashes of will. I normally make a quiet exit when I see that about to erupt. Some are a combination of both parents, and in different degrees (I’m looking at you, Jaime del Mundo and Roselyn Perez).
Through the years I would get an occasional call from Rep: Are you free to be in the cast of so-and-so? Can you direct this play by so-and-so? In mid-2014, Tita Baby called me. In her unmistakable voice, made smoky and octaves lower by years of nicotine inhalation, she asked me if I would direct a play she wanted to act in. I could not decline because I loved the play and I hadn’t yet had the chance to direct her. At the same time, I was filled with trepidation. Would it be possible to direct your mentor without feeling stifled, insecure, and self-conscious? How would you even begin? But she pandered to my ego by saying she was so proud of her son and that she thought I had turned out to be a fantastic director. Alas, weak man that I am, I gave in.
4000 Miles by Amy Herzog is a play about a troubled young man knocking at the door of his grandmother late one night after having bicycled across the American continent from Seattle to New York. Having almost nothing in common with his grandmother, a strong-willed communist who hates the inconvenience of aging—false teeth, failing eyesight, difficulty hearing—he is forced to ask her for shelter. They thereby embark on a relationship that starts awkwardly but ends three weeks later with a bond built on mutual respect, understanding, and deep affection.
It turned out I had absolutely nothing to fear from Tita Baby. I would call her in the mornings, after the previous day’s rehearsals, and give her directions and notes over the phone: “Tita Baby, try playing her less kooky and more practical in this afternoon’s rehearsal.” To which she would reply, “Okay. But what about the line where she says…” And a discussion would ensue but then, voila! The afternoon’s rehearsal would be different from yesterday’s.
During the days of the actual performances, I would go backstage before the show, give a pep talk, join hands with cast and crew in prayer, and Tita Baby would engage me in some chitchat, as if keeping me from leaving backstage. She sold me on the idea of directing Almost, Maine, even as I had serious doubts about the match between the material and me (I’m grateful I heeded her!).
On the last performance of the play, I sat there silently weeping at the final curtain. My mother was playing grandmother to my son
4000 Miles appears simple, though it is anything but. It has layers and layers of meaning and emotion that require complex interpretations of deceptively simple lines. Having selected Jef Flores, a newbie in whom I recognized a certain carefree quality essential to the character, to play the lead opposite Tita Baby, I found myself doing extra rehearsals with him, mentoring him, wheedling and coaxing and attempting to inspire him the way I was by my theatrical parents. I invested so much time and effort in Jef, at first because of my desire to give justice to a play I loved, but later because we had gotten so close I was rooting for him to succeed. I was determined my son should succeed. On the last performance of the play, I sat there silently weeping at the final curtain. My mother was playing grandmother to my son.
It was Tita Baby’s final play.
On my way back from work abroad, where I had heard the devastating news that she was gone, I sat on the plane thinking about her. How fitting, I thought, that the mother directed the son’s first leading role, and the son directed his mother’s final leading role. And all I could think of was, I hope she knew how much I respected and loved her, and how grateful I am now that she had given me something I could pass on.