REVIEW: ‘Lean’

(Originally published in the Phil. Online Chronicles last September 2013)

An entire generation of student activists were moved and inspired by songs from the 1997 ‘Lean: The Musical’, a theatrical play on the life of activist leader Lean Alejandro. Members of that generation graduated from college, dropped-out to continue their advocacy outside of the comfortable confines of the academe, had families, while being content with listening to ‘Lean’ songs in their Mp3 players, or in Youtube.

Sixteen years after, the life and times of Alejandro is again being commemorated in the gilded halls of theaters, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

According to the UP Repertory Company, a student organization based in the University of the Philippines Diliman and the group behind ‘Lean’, their production was based closely on the 1997 play with a few differences.

For example, while almost all the songs from the original were also featured in ‘Lean’, the latter has a more electronica (some say ‘Owl City-ish’ feel) while the former had a definite punk rock flavor.

There’s also the usual share of less-than-stellar moments which could be attributed to the mishmash in the cast which featured not only members of UP Repertory, but also other students and youths who auditioned for various roles way back in June.

But there are diamonds in the rough: Theater Arts student Nikki Lorenzo pulled off her role as ‘Bobbie’ quite nicely, portraying both the ‘GD’ (grim and determined) activist who would engage ‘Lean’ in organizational debates, and as her human side which involved having an unrequited crush on him too.

Theater first-timers James Relativo and Orly Putong, who portrayed Lean’s fellow activists ‘Noli’ and ‘Chino’, respectively also had decent performances.

But despite all of these, ‘Lean’ shines in one aspect: timeliness. The story of the life and times of Alejandro has not been rendered obsolete 26 years after his existence on this world was cut short.

History repeats itself, art imitates life

Alejandro, who served as Chairperson of the Diliman University Student Council before becoming founding secretary-general of the leftist umbrella group Bayan, was assassinated mere months after the infamous Mendiola Massacre as part of the first Aquino administration’s ‘total war policy’.

All three events were adequately presented in ‘Lean’, much to the discomfort of any audience member who might have harbored pro-Aquino sympathies. One scene showed ‘Cory’ literally being controlled like a puppet by ‘Mr. Tim’ in military fatigues, a reference to the late president’s

But this is topped by the scene featuring the song ‘Sa Mendiola’ (In Mendiola) which portrayed not just the Mendiola Massacre, but also the events leading to it: the failure of agrarian reform under Cory. One such line in the song goes like this:

“Nasaan na ang makataong gobyerno? Nasaan na ang makabayang bibig? Nasaan na ang maka-Diyos na pangulo? Nasaan na lupa ng magbubukid?” (Where is the humane government? Where is the people’s voice? Where is the God-fearing president? Where is the land of the peasants?)

“Puro papeles, dada, at pangako. Kami’y patuloy ninyong hinahangal” (Nothing but papers, talk, and promises. You continue to make fools out of us!)

While the original musical took shots at the late president’s ‘Total War’ policy which resulted in hundreds of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances under her Administration, as well as the much maligned Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), the same themes seem to be right at home in 2013. The lack of genuine land reform in the country continues today, with Cory’s Hacienda Luisita as the symbol. Human rights violations committed by the military are also a continuing occurrence under the present administration.

Continuing relevance

It is appropriate that ‘Lean’ was staged in UP’s Diliman campus (in the Aldaba Recital Hall, and a single special performance at the ‘AS’, or what was formerly the College of Arts and Sciences builindg) with its message for many ‘Iskolars ng Bayan’.

The song ‘Burgis’ (Bourgeois) pokes fun at students and professors concerned with academics ‘for academics’ sake’: “Ano ba ang kabuluhan ng kabuluhan ng kabuluhan?” (What is the relevance of relevance of relevance?) and “Ano ba ang kahulugahan ng kahulugan ng kahulugan?” (What is the meaning of meaning… of meaning?)

‘Iskolar ng Bayan’ (Scholar of the People) is even more direct, opening with: “Huwag ninyong hayaan ang inyong pag-aaral ay maging sagabal sa inyong edukasyon” (Don’t let your studies interfere with your learning)

And of course, nothing beats the inspirational vibes (at least, for UP students and alumni) one gets from ‘UP Naming Mahal’ (Our Beloved UP), a modification of UP’s University Hymn which encourages students to ‘serve the people’.

A musical for our times

‘Lean’ strikes gold, not only for the countless activists who grew up and to be contented with listening to ‘Lean’ songs in mp3 players and Youtube, but for anyone who wants to have their entertainment fortified with political and social relevance.

In an era of disappointment and cynicism, ‘Lean’ doesn’t just show that after two Aquinos, our country is an even deeper hole than before. It also gives out the message of solidarity and unity against adversity. It challenges today’s youth to follow the footsteps of Alejandro, ‘Bobbie’, ‘ Chino’, ‘Noli’, and the real-life activists who continue to strive for social change.

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3 Responses to REVIEW: ‘Lean’

  1. Upon reading this, I remember my student days at the defunct Narra Residence Hall where at its lobby there was Lean’s famous line: “In the line of fire is the place of Honor”. We revived then the “Lean, Lean”, a week-long commemoration for the notable and former Narra dormer Lean Alejandro being a project of the Narra Residence Hall House Council. Thanks for this piece!

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