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Bravo, Ama Quiambao!

The loudest buzz in local entertainment that is generating some degree of excitement is major star Vilma Santos’s latest turn as a movie extra in an independent film about bit players in the movie industry.  The movie is scheduled for public exhibition in the next few months. I am personally looking forward to the movie because of the promise that it will effectively put the spotlight on the uncelebrated lives of movie bit players.  These are the great actors and actresses who enliven up a scene or provide the critical context to a story with just a few seconds’ worth of appearance.  There has been some attention directed at them in the last few years on account of the relative success of the movie about Lilia Cuntapay—the actress who has played the role of the longhaired white lady ghost in many scary movies for as long as I can remember.  But the attention has not been adequate, nor has it significantly improved their lot. There are many, many more outstanding performers who really deserve credit and attention.  They are relegated to playing small or supporting roles in local movies because of the prevailing star system, but they are widely acknowledged and highly acclaimed as theatre actors. Ama Quiambao is a familiar face to many Filipinos.  She has played mother, grandmother, maid, storekeeper, or ordinary taongbayan (crowd) in countless movies and television shows that her name does not seem important to many - people simply recognize her as an actress even if they do not know her name.   People associate roles with her.  When a group of friends watched a play at the Cultural Center of the Philippines last year, my companions nudged me when they saw her in the audience.  They didn’t know who she was, but each one had a distinct memory of a movie or TV show where she played a memorable role.  My distinct memory of her as an actress was her performance as Sepa, one of Nora Aunor’s devotees in Himala.   She’s the actress that declares Elsa as a saint and rallies the faithful to come back to the hill to pray at the end of the film. To say that Quiambao was a constant and steady presence in the lives among those of us who were babysat by television would be apt.  Supporters of local theatre, however, know Ama Quiambao as a magnificent theatre actress. Quiambao collapsed onstage at the Huseng Batute Theatre of the CCP last Friday while playing Ester in Pamamanhikan, a one-act play on the special friendship between two middle-aged women.  The Play is one of 13 plays being staged as part of the ninth edition of Virgin Labfest, a festival featuring – as the blurb says – untried, untested, unstaged plays.  Quimbao had a heart attack while doing what she loved doing best – being an actress. Quiambao was therefore top of mind all throughout the Virgin Labfest this week.  Performances began with an appeal for prayers and donations for her. Last Friday, her role in Pamamanhikan was taken over by another great actress, Ermie Concepcion who bravely took on the role on very short notice all for the love of Ama Quiambao.   Concepcion delivered an affecting performance although hobbled significantly by the fact that she had to read most of her dialogue from a script.  To her credit, she succeeded in transforming the script into a stage prop and people forgot about it halfway through the performance.  Carme Sanchez as Ibyang deserved the loud cheers and standing ovation at curtain call for her splendid performance.  She valiantly and effortlessly carried the play on her shoulders. The play’s actors and production staff were in tears at curtain call as they offered their performance to Quiambao, who unbeknownst to them passed on at about the same time that they were taking their bows onstage.  I will leave it up to the readers to make meaning out of the synchronicity. People trooped out of the theatre with a heavy heart after the announcement of Quiambao’s death at the end of the third play (Carlo Vergara’s hilarious and ingenious Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady) last Friday.  But I am sure Quiambao’s spirit will be a powerful ennobling force for the Virgin Labfest, not just for the current edition (while is on until today), but for all succeeding editions. We remember Ama Quiambao with fondness and with great respect for her talent and her commitment to theatre and the performing arts.
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