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Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio

AMELIA LAPEÑA-BONIFACIO (4 April 1930 – 29 December 2020) has dedicated her lifetime in search of and in propagating literature and theater forms reflective of Asian and Philippine roots. Well-respected in the Philippines and other countries, she has taught, inspired and encouraged women and young artists in the fields of literature and theater.

She pioneered in the study of Philippine Zarzuela in Bulacan publishing THE “SEDITIOUS” TAGALOG PLAYWRIGHTS: EARLY AMERICAN OCCUPATION and cited by the Cultural Center of the Philippines Encyclopedia as “the first book on Philippine Theatre.”  This study inspired seven researches on Philippine Theater in various regions by members of the U.P. Department of English and Comparative Literature and other books on drama.

She started writing plays for adults in the 1950s but the lack of storybooks in Filipino and educational shows in the 1970s, a time when she was raising her own child, made her decide to concentrate on writing for children. She was one of the first writers to introduce and promote children’s and Asian literature. Due to her exposure to Asian theater forms, she was inspired to introduce the various forms to the Filipino audience through her Japanese-inspired plays like Ang Paglalakbay ni Sisa (The Journey of Sisa) and Si Juan at ang kanyang Madyik na Sombrero (Juan and his Magic Hat). Theater scholar and Asian Theatre Journal editor Kathy Foley recognizes her as the one responsible for the Asianization of Philippine theater.

She also introduced six plays for children, all based on Philippine folktales, in her book, ANIM NA DULANG PILIPINO PARA SA BATA (Six Filipino Plays for Children) published in 1976. She has written significant plays such as ABADEJA: ANG ATING SINDERELA (Abadeja: Our Cinderella), SITA & RAMA: PAPET RAMAYANA (Sita & Rama: Ramayana in Puppetry), and DALAWANG BAYANI (TWO HEROES) which introduce Filipino audiences to Philippine and Asian sensibilities. PAPET PASYON (THE PASSION PLAY IN PUPPETRY) is the Philippines’ 1st senakulo for children, premiered in 1985 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and continues to be staged every Palm Sunday.

Her exposure to various theater forms in Southeast Asia and Japan inspired her to introduce the art of puppetry to the Filipino children. After the successful staging of Abadeja: Ang Ating Sinderela in 1977, she established TEATRONG MULAT NG PILIPINAS. Her main goal was to awaken the Filipino children to the beauty and richness not only of their own culture, but of still unfamiliar Asian cultures. She chose the word “mulat”, which means to open, to awaken her audiences to the Philippine and Asian stories and theater.

Fascinated by the Indonesian wayang golek (rod puppet) and wayang kulit (shadow puppet) and the Japanese bunraku (a puppet manipulated by three puppeteers), she infused Asian and Philippine designs to the puppets, costumes and other art works. She has collaborated with established and young artists in the creation of Mulat’s puppet shows. She discovered a prominent woodcarver in Paete, Laguna, Justino Cagayat (and later on his son, Paloy) who agreed to carve the puppet heads, hands, and feet for the various puppet shows of Mulat. In its 43 years of existence, Mulat has been recognized as a pioneering puppet group not only in the Philippines and Southeast Asia but in other parts of the world. All these efforts have resulted in the creation of a new Puppet Theater Tradition in the Philippines.

In 1985, she established UNIMA-Pilipinas or the Philippine Center of the international puppet organization UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette) to help promote puppetry in the Philippines and introduce Philippine puppetry to the world.

AMELIA LAPEÑA-BONIFACIO is an educator, artist, and a mother who has nurtured young artists. Similar to the Asian tradition of passing on one’s knowledge to a family member, she has influenced her daughter, Amihan, son-in-law, Raymund, and two grandchildren, Aina and Roel, to join her in popularizing the art of puppetry.

After the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991, AMELIA LAPEÑA-BONIFACIO wrote to Nissan Motors Japan to request for a van that could be used for outreach performances particularly in the provinces affected by the eruption. The donation by the NISSAN ROREN Worker’s Union proved to be valuable since it gave the opportunity for Mulat to travel to various places. Mulat has effectively extended meaningful educational children’s theater to various preschools, grade and high schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, orphanages and other institutions in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao through puppet-making workshops and/or performances.

She is also a visionary, wanting to have a place for children. Mulat received requests from schools to come over to UP and watch a puppet show. They were accommodated in various auditoriums in the UP Campus. For smaller groups, she built a small puppet theater in the garden next to their cottage in Mabini St. with a seating capacity of 50. When the family transferred to Teacher’s Village in 1989, she used their garage for an audience of 75. In 1993, she and her husband purchased an old house, still in Teacher’s Village, and converted the 1st floor to a puppet theatre with a seating capacity of 100 and the 2nd floor to a museum for puppets, dolls and masks. With much determination, she acquired a grant from President V. Ramos, which was implemented during the term of President Joseph Estrada, to build a three-storey building on the lot. Hence, the establishment of the AMELIA LAPEÑA-BONIFACIO TEATRO PAPET MUSEO–the very first children’s theatre and puppet museum in the Philippines.

Malaysian professor and theatre critic Krishen Jit dubbed LAPEÑA-BONIFACIO as “The Grande Dame of SE Asian Children’s Theatre” since “there is no puppet master in Asia that has so successfully synthesized the myriad and rich puppet traditions of the region towards a construction of a pan-Asian  contemporary theatre form and content… a shining example of a completely committed theatre person dedicated to excellence and innovation.” 

For her exemplary intellectual achievement and distinctive contribution to the development and promotion of the art of puppetry in the Philippines, the University of the Philippines recognized her as the MOTHER OF PHILIPPINE PUPPETRY (2010)  and was conferred the title National Artist for Theater, the country’s highest recognition for artists, in 2018.

Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio with MULAT puppeteers.