David Byrne’s Broadway musical is a breakthrough for Filipino American performers, but at what cost to the historical truths it dances around?
In November 2014, I traveled to the city of Tacloban on the island of Leyte for research on a multidisciplinary project to understand the impact of communication during Super Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Yolanda). It was a full year after the deadliest typhoon in Philippine history made its landfall, killing more than 6,000 people and displacing 600,000 inhabitants. Parts of the city were growing steadily thanks to international aid; other parts remained wrecked and graffitied. The Santo Niño Shrine and Heritage Museum, colloquially known as the Imelda Marcos Museum, and one of the 20 presidential palaces built during martial law, had been damaged but renovated. As I meandered through the richly decorated rooms, I stopped at the paintings depicting the Marcos family in mythic symbols.
“Oh, she’s so pretty,” a Filipina tourist cooed. Up to that point, she had been chatting with her companions in another Philippine language, but now they stood closer to me, admiring the painting. “It’s such a shame. Imelda did nothing wrong.”
The moment lingers with me after all these years: a subtle, ambiguous encounter in Imelda’s hometown among Filipinos and a Filipino American standing before an epic painting that, depending on your point of view, could be called either art or propaganda. The Marcos dictatorship’s cultural product is a site where narratives of power, artistry, and justice converge. Here Lies Love, now on Broadway, is a similarly charged space for working out the legacies and futures of the Philippines as a former colony of the United States and a young nation state, bringing up concerns about historical distortion, artistic responsibility, and truth and creative license in a time of misinformation.