This play means healing: Exploring the parallels between colonization in Canada and the Philippines

Nine years in the making, Jo SiMalaya Alcampo's Hilot Means Healer celebrates Indigenous spirituality and resistance in times of occupation.

Jo SiMalaya Alcampo's Hilot Means Healer celebrates Indigenous resilience in times of occupation

The cast of Hilot Means Healer. Clockwise from top left: Carolyn Fe, Karen Ancheta, Belinda Corpuz, Aldrin Bundoc. (Photo by Dahlia Katz)

Multidisciplinary artist Jo SiMalaya Alcampo has been working on their latest show Hilot Means Healer for the past nine years — and this October, it's finally being brought to the stage. Presented by Cahoots Theatre in association with b current, the play uses a combination of magic realism and Filipino folklore to explore Indigenous spirituality and resistance in times of occupation, drawing parallels between the experience of colonization in Canada and in the Philippines.

Born in Manila and raised in the heart of Scarborough, it was during Alcampo's time as a student at OCAD University that they became interested in reconnecting with their Indigenous roots in the Philippines and began questioning what responsibilities they had as a settler in Canada. They also started to explore systems of ethical conduct when integrating Indigenous knowledge systems and practices within art. Ever since, these ideas have been major themes in their work, which incorporates storytelling through installation-based art, electroacoustic soundscapes and written word.

For Alcampo, seeing Hilot Means Healer staged means bringing audiences a history they didn't learn about in school.

"The idea is based on stories I've heard throughout my childhood about the occupation of Manila by the Japanese in World War II," they tell CBC Arts. "There were over 100,000 Filipinos killed during this time. I was thinking about the acts of resilience that it took to survive that time period and the small acts of love and understanding that can happen even in those horrible experiences."

Hilot Means Healer centres around a makeshift family who find sanctuary in a Manila garden during the last days of the Second World War. When a deserting soldier enters the garden and disrupts the established dynamic, all parties are forced to deal with the consequences. The show explores both the need for solidarity in difficult times and the ways unspoken trauma can be passed down through generations — things that Alcampo feels resonate with the current challenges faced by Indigenous people in Canada. The artist is part of a group called the Kapwa Collective that works towards bridging narratives between Indigenous and diasporic Canadian communities, and their play feels like an extension of that work.

"I feel like in an Indigenous worldview spirit is connected in the unseen, and that's one of the things I've tried to explore in the play — those things that bring us together — while still respecting our independent interdependence."

Jo SiMalaya Alcampo. (Photo by Marko Kovacevic/Courtesy

That work can also be seen in Alcampo's previous installation art. Their piece Singing Plants saw them rig banana plants to respond to physical touch with songs of the Ifugao people indigenous to the Philippines, while their photo series re/connections was inspired by prolific Indigenous author Lee Maracle. Each of these pieces draws heavily from conversations Alcampo had with Indigenous people about our responsibility to the land, and a strong desire to connect to the culture of the land's traditional knowledge keepers. For Alcampo, those ideas are always at the forefront of their art and were pivotal to the creation of Hilot Means Healer.

To root the process in Indigenous values, the creative team invited Lindy Kinoshameg — one of the people behind the INDIGENizeUS educational workshops — to guide them through the Seven Ancestral Teachings of the Anishinaabe (Respect, Humility, Bravery, Honesty, Love, Wisdom and Truth). In an expression of solidarity with Indigenous people of Turtle Island, the cast and crew used the framework taught by Kinoshameg to guide them through the rehearsal process and further creation of the performance.

Those sentiments are the reason Hilot Means Healer's director Jasmine Chen was drawn to the project. As a director, Chen is constantly evaluating her roles and responsibilities as both a settler and a second-generation immigrant in Canada.

"By telling this story now, we want the piece to be in dialogue with current movements led by Indigenous peoples who are fighting to protect water and land in Canada," says Chen. "I was particularly interested in opening conversations around healing that involved returning to the earth — that there is a way to heal ourselves through caretaking for community and nature, as opposed to the self-involved self-care industry that has been fuelled by capitalism."

This story is for anyone who has experienced loss and intergenerational fracture, where it's difficult to talk to a past that we haven't healed from yet. It's a love letter for folks who are trying to find ways to connect with generations before.- Jo SiMalaya Alcampo

Hilot Means Healer runs between October 5th-27th at the Theatre Centre in Toronto. For audiences attending the performance, Alcampo hopes it is an opportunity to see a different kind of story onstage — one that is rooted in personal history but contextualized by their relationship to the land and the shared struggles among people.

"This story is for anyone who has experienced loss and intergenerational fracture, where it's difficult to talk to a past that we haven't healed from yet. It's a love letter for folks who are trying to find ways to connect with generations before: our ancestors and those who are in spirit world. It's trying to find a good way forward together while recognizing the stories that came before, good and bad. Those stories aren't lost — we're just disconnected from them. By rediscovering the tales and respecting the land we are on, there is so much to learn."

Hilot Means Healer. To October 27. Toronto.

About the Author

Graham Isador is a writer and theatre creator based out of Toronto. He trained as a part of the playwright unit at Soulpepper Theatre. Isador's work has appeared at VICE, The Risk Podcast, and the punk rock satire site The Hard Times, among other places.