I join the University of the Philippines community and the country in mourning the passing of yet another of our country’s greats: National Artist for Theater and UP Professor Emeritus Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio, who passed away in the morning of December 29, 2020 at the age of 90.
How do we honor the life of a storyteller as beloved as Lapeña-Bonifacio? By telling a story about her and her impact on the world of theater, puppetry and children’s education. During an arts festival in the 1970s in Washington DC, Lapeña-Bonifacio—Tita Amel to her many students, colleagues and friends—stirred up controversy when she offered American puppeteer Jim Henson three reasons his puppetry in “Sesame Street” would not click with Asian children. First, she pointed out, some of the characters on “Sesame Street” engaged in some violence for humorous effect at the time; second, the show’s scenes were too short; and third, some of the puppets’ physical antics could be seen as a sign of disrespect.
According to an article written by Cora Llamas and published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Lapeña-Bonifacio challenged Henson: “Remove the destructive elements like the breaking of plates. If kids have a short attention span, then how come our children back home can watch puppet shows for an hour? And, please, stop throwing all that food around. If that is funny to you Westerners, food for us Asians is almost sacred—it can be a matter of life or death.”
Henson paid attention and after the encounter, he created The Dark Crystal, a full-length puppetry-packed movie with Asian themes. But it was not the first nor would it be the last time that the lady, who would be known as the “Grand Dame of Southeast Asian Theater” and the “Mother of Philippine Puppetry”, would advocate for and create works demonstrating the unique values, cultural beliefs, and perspectives of Asian children by recreating the beauty of Asian and Filipino myths and legends through magnificent works in theater and puppetry for generations of children.
Lapeña-Bonifacio was recognized worldwide as an outstanding educator, author, puppeteer and theater icon, specializing in Japanese traditional theater, Southeast Asian traditional theater, and international children’s theater. She delved deep into the traditional theatre of the Philippines, and utilized Japanese Bunraku and Indonesian wayang or shadow puppets, to depict Asian folklore and Filipino mythology and make them appeal to her young audience.
She became a Fulbright scholar in 1956 and obtained her Master of Arts degree in Speech and Drama at the University of Wisconsin in 1958. She wrote her first play, Sepang Loca, in 1957, and Rooms in 1958, with both works winning awards in the Wisconsin Playwrighting Competition.
She became a faculty member of the UP Diliman Speech and Drama Department, then later of the Department of English and Comparative Literature. In the 1970s, she published Anim na Dulang Pilipino Para Sa Mga Bata, then wrote and directed Abadeja: Ang Ating Sinderela, a puppet play based on a Visayan folktale. In 1977, she founded Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas, the official theater company and puppetry troupe of the University of the Philippines.
She was as fearless as she was prolific, as shown by her theatre company performing Ang Paghuhukom, based on the Pampanga folktale of the animal kingdom, that criticized the Marcos regime. In time, however, Lapeña-Bonifacio’s theatre group received funding from the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which helped them to perform dozens of shows in various countries and participate in international children’s theatre workshops and puppetry festivals abroad.
Following the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption that devastated numerous provinces in the Philippines, Teatrong Mulat, heeding the advice of the UP College of Medicine, presented plays to the traumatized children to help with their healing process, with the theater company performing in 30 refugee or relocation sites in Pampanga and Zambales.
In 2004, Teatrong Mulat presented Sita & Rama: Papet Ramayana, which interpreted the Indian epic Ramayana through shadow and rod puppetry, with music by Joey Ayala and Cynthia Alexander and directed by Lapeña-Bonifacio’s daughter, Amihan Bonifacio-Ramolete. In 2006, a house near the UP Diliman campus was rebuilt and reopened as the Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Teatro Papet Museo through government funding and grants from former presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Joseph E. Estrada. In 2012, Lapeña-Bonifacio’s 1991 play Land, Sea and Sky was relaunched by her theatre company to raise awareness on various environmental concerns that the country is facing.
Lapeña-Bonifacio served as the President of the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People-Philippines (ASSITEJ-Philippines) and Union Internationale de la Marionnette-Philippines (UNIMA-Philippines). In October 2018, she was formally declared a National Artist of the Philippines, the highest distinction and honor conferred by the government to Filipino artists. By then, she had produced 44 plays, 28 of which are for children; 136 short stories, mostly for children and young adults; 26 books, and a 2014 novel for young readers about World War II. There may be more to come, in fact: In 2019 she revealed in an interview a possible collaborative work with former fellow UP professor and National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab.
Enumerating Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio’s achievements is just one small thing that we can do to celebrate her lifetime of creativity, devotion to her art, and passion for theater and puppetry. However, her greatest legacy lies in the intangible: in the memories and the imaginations of the generations of children who have watched the beloved characters from their favorite stories come alive, thrilling them with adventures, making them laugh, instilling a love for art and their own cultural heritage, and imparting valuable life lessons along the way. Through Teatrong Mulat, her successors, and the many children she has taught, such a legacy will be sure to live on to delight countless generations more.
Paalam at salamat po, Tita Amel.
— Danilo L. Concepcion
President, University of the Philippines