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The Gallery, Once More with Feeling

It was simply called “The Gallery.” Situated in what is presently the Ramaida Centrum, the Gallery was owned by Cesar Natividad, a Bikolano and Atenean. He made good in the world of advertising and one day, tired of Manila, came home to the small backwater city of Naga. He was a friend of Rolando Alano, a Manila Bulletin correspondent, who happened to be the brother of Rudy Alano.

Rudy was a great poet and mentor. Fresh from Siliman Writer’s Workshop, he was cool, with sophisticated taste in everything about the arts and letters. Rudy could be intimidating because he did not mince words when someone presented him with works to comment on.

Cesar was way above the artists of that generation. He did oil paintings but he awed us more with his pencil drawings. Using black, blue and red ballpoint pens, he would make small dots and small lines, endless scribblings that shaded into shapes, conspired to contour forms and figures and hills and dales. Every now and then, he would press the ballpoint pen against clean cotton to make sure the pen would not gather ink at the tip and smudge the paper.

A few more months and Cesar became Zarex. That was understandable: we were surrounded by irreverent individuals, iconoclasts all, who assumed different names. Romy Cruz of the Cruzes of Dayangdang became Romy Kurz; Roque went on to become Roxlee.

“The Gallery” was one of the few air-c0nditioned places in Naga then. There was a glass door and the critics of the place, said the glass and the design intimidated customers. Maybe there was some truth to that. The truth is the crowd that gathered in that place was the real intimidation. True intellectuals without declaring it, true artists without claiming it, the Gallery nurtured a very 70s bohemian society. They would not be caught dead with that term but they, as I look back, were strong and strange artists and thinkers.

Abe Olaguera was there, he with new, heavy books to scare off anyone who came forward with intellectual pretenses. He would be the first to praise “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and the first also to mock its touchy-feely thoughts. Long before “The Hobbit” invaded our consciousness, Abe was there with Tolkien loudly discussing the merits and demerits of the writer.

Woe to anyone lugging Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet” because you will be teased by Rudy and Chito Irigo and other guys there with the insane question: Are you in love?

I do not know how I survived “The Gallery.” Perhaps, it was because my brother Pempe was one of the big guys in that crowd. A visual artist and a magnificent stage actor, he was my passport to the area. Otherwise, I was a timid freshman when “The Gallery” was formed.

The place also had a strong connection to Ateneo de Naga College then. The individuals dominant in the Gallery were all members of SP2ASM. It was martial law and the government did not allow any student organization. Only one was allowed in Ateneo. The condition was strange and perverse: the organization had to be solely for intellectual purposes. Remember that before the declaration of martial rule, Ateneo de Naga was Red.

Reading that condition from the government, the organization that was built to be intelligent was presumed to be above the masses. That was always the fear of the Marcos dictatorship, that the intelligentsia would serve the masses and the disenfranchised. This brings us to eternal lessons about the academe: All governments are scared of thinking men who make themselves relevant to societies. But if you are intelligent and confine yourself to lessons in classrooms, you are safe. You will be the Beloved of any administration.

We were not the Beloved of the city and the school, to say the least.

Imagine a group of young students proposing to give lectures to fellow students on topics like Man and the Machine, Alienation and Existentialism! But we did that and more. We talked about theatre and breath theatre.

Naga City was alive then in terms of culture and arts. Over at University of Nueva Caceres, the theatre was alive with stalwarts like Bennie Mipa, Diego Recto, Alice Lorena and Chito Fanglow. This team brought to the small city of Naga the theatre traditions of the Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA) Colegio de Santa Isabel was obsessed with Broadway musicals and maintained a good college choir, not to mention the excellent College of Music. Mely de la Paz Saenz and Meriem Rodriguez formed a formidable team, which cut across educational institutions and civic organizations.

In Ateneo, the influence of Fr. James O’Brien was alive in the staging of Bikol plays. Two of these were Monlee’s “Pororopot,” a comedy that, for the first time, allowed “obscenities” to be uttered by characters on stage. Then the group of Minio Brazal, Aton Nabua, Bantu Oira, Minio Brazal, and Pempe Valiente dared to follow the success of “Pororopot,” with “Octavio Series.” The play was not a series but was rather taken from the leading character of a battery commercial, named Octavio. As it was a series, the playwrights concocted the name “Octavio Series.”

In Ateneo, Johnny Ragragio maintained the English theatre tradition of the old school by staging works like Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real.” In the college Assembly Hall, Rudy Alano would be practicing Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story,” which was staged each year, a paean to the first surge of alienation in the Angry 70s.

Then one night, we staged “Haluyhoy sa Karimlan” in The Gallery. It was directed by Diego Recto, with Alice Lorena and I playing the couple. The story is about two old people reminiscing. Every now and then, they would stop talking because of a thud or knocking from above. As the sound became louder, the Old Woman began to panic and demanded an explanation. In anguish, the Old Man revealed to her that the sound was those of workers and their only son cementing their graves from outside.

Dan Eleazar was the sound effect man. He was in the room immediately above our small stage on the ground floor and he was producing the sounds with such violence and menace.

Writing about that performance now, I wonder if the audience that night ever liked the play. It was a dark, hopeless tale, darker even for the generation that was struggling with the hopelessness of life under the dictators then.

The Gallery is gone now. Many of the people who made the place memorable and exciting are gone. Cesar passed away some years ago. He is survived by his face and mannerisms in Cesar Asar, a cartoon character created by Monlee and Roxlee for a national broadsheet.

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