An Exploration of What Haunts Us in ‘MUMU’
“We all have ghosts.”
The neon red sign on the facade of Bindlestiff Studio on 6th St. beckoned from afar. A huddle of black-clad figures hovered by the entrance, while a sudden chill breezes through. Past nights have been unusually warm but that Friday night, it felt as if the city joined in. The faces in the dim light all looked eager. And then the doors opened.
One of the markers of the fall season has always been Halloween and after a few years of staying in the country, I finally acclimated to the festivities towards the end of October. It hasn’t always been like that. Where I’m from, we never really celebrated October 31st or Halloween the same way. Growing up in a predominantly Catholic culture, what we celebrated was November 1st and 2nd, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day - “Undas.” And instead of wearing costumes, going trick-or-treating and indulging in good ol’ Halloween debauchery, we stopped to honor the dead.
As early as three in the afternoon, my family and I would start heading towards the PUBLIC cemetery in our small town in Pampanga, Philippines. We would bring food in Tupperware containers, flowers and candles. At the gate of the cemetery, vendors selling strands of sampaguita and candles would come up to us to try to sell some of their goods. The fishball vendors have set up their stands on the side, with jars of assorted sauces ready for dipping.
We make our way through a tiny city of tombs, past makeshift karaoke machines and groups of people either praying, laughing or eating. Most of the tombs are laid atop of each other, structures of solid cement. We find my grandparents’ tomb and already there are candles and wreaths of flowers. We pray, we eat, we tell stories. We honor, we celebrate. In the tiny city of tombs, we need not don masks or costumes because we are in the company of ghosts, of spirits.
I recall all of these things when I first started seeing photos for the MUMU show on Instagram. Along with rituals and traditions I grew up with, there were also ghost stories, sentinel spirits and the infamous “White Lady” apparitions I was familiar with. As spooky as this photo looked, it also felt strangely familiar:
Borne out of longing to tell the stories they heard from their grandmothers as kids, long-time friends and creative partners Irene Faye Duller and Julie Rosete Munsayac dreamed of turning these stories into an experiential project. MUMU was born, a multisensory, art-theater experience, a celebration of death and a meditation of darker selves.
“Mumu” is the Tagalog derivative of the word for ghost (multo) coupled with the Filipino’s linguistic penchant of repeating the first syllable of certain words (usually used on names i.e. Junjun, Tintin, Lotlot but also for other words that may be deemed “uncouth”). Mumu is ghost, spirit, anything haunted.
I was psyched. As a Pinay thousands of miles away from the homeland, this was the closest thing to the traditional Undas I grew up with.
As I walked into the studio, a palpable sense of gloom overwhelmed me. The interior of the theater has been redone, with the usual foyer now a part of the stage. Thick heavy curtains line the walls. The air is thick and heavy with anticipation, as music spilled out of the speakers. In spite of my jittery nerves, I felt warmly cocooned.
It is 1977. The show centers around a young man, a Filipino immigrant lost in the reverie of poetry, whiskey, his fears and all the in-betweens. He is haunted by many ghosts, all of it woven in a melee of light and darkness, a heartrending tussle between life and death. Elegantly eerie characters grace many of the stages, each room a chamber of history and memory. The music is guttural, evoking a pulsing rhythm between the characters and the audience. Alternating between melancholic and electric, the choreography relays urgent messages only conveyed through movement. With a soundscape that includes 70’s Filipino love songs, a melancholic grief settles while the eyes feast on visuals mirroring the miasma on stage.
This is no horror house. As I move from one room to another, straddling my own, personal fears, I uncover layers of the troubled man’s life as I wrestle with my own. Beyond the mumu, ghosts and spirits of the dead, what the show reveals is an intimate grappling of our fears and all the things that haunt us, in all their varied manifestations. That our fears are not only our own, that we are actually tethered to the same ghosts that have haunted us as a people. That as a people who have been colonized, displaced and traumatized, we carry fragments of these hauntings.
Before the preview weekend, the team held a series of storytelling sessions called #HelloMumu over at Arkipelago Books. With anchor storytellers, the sessions celebrated and recounted the stories we’ve heard as kids, but also revealed the layered complexities of horror present in the Filipino-American psyche.
“We are haunted in the worst ways because we have war, we have rape and pillage, and we have transnational families; OFWs are murdered, while others look for their children back home. All these things are ingrained, in efforts of creating identity for Filipinos in the diaspora,” said Duller.
When I exited the doors of the theater, I wasn’t entirely sure if the show has ended. Then I realized that the abrupt way it ended left me craving for more. I came in with an entirely different concept of what it’d be about, and came out with a grander, more visceral perspective of what “mumu” evoked. More than just a ghost story, or a recollection of what I knew as a kid, it was an inquiry, a provocation of memory, history and our cultural psyche, what we fear and how we define fear, and indeed, a meditation of our darker selves.
We all have ghosts. What will you bring to the show?
MUMU is a 90-minute multisensory, art-theater experience and runs from October 27 - November 18, 2017 at Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco. Reservations are required, with each show limited to 40 people. For more info, visit mumu-sf.com.
Pia Cortez is a Bay Area-based community organizer and the creator of Libromance, a blog dedicated to book reviews and literary features with a queer Pinay immigrant perspective. She believes in the power and beauty of the written word: how stories stretch time and transcend boundaries, how books simultaneously challenge and console, how reading becomes an act of resistance. Pia hopes to transform reading from a solitary pursuit and turn it into a tool for community-building, a catalyst for ruckus-raising. When she’s not currently reading the world, she’s experimenting with #booklooks, a play on books and fashion.