The film director Sidney Lumet, who died this week at the age of eighty-seven, changed my life. At a dinner party, when I was twenty-six and, as a sideline, writing about theatre in an East Side giveaway paper for ten dollars a column, he took me aside and told me he liked my stuff and to keep at it. His faith is something I have always carried with me. -- John Lahr in The New Yorker
Sorry to leech off that story--it's only that I have a similar tale to tell. In 2003 or thereabouts, I had begun covering theater, and one of the very first productions I reviewed was Tanghalang Pilipino's Mass, adapted by Rody Vera from the F. Sionil Jose novel. It starred the film/TV actor Yul Servo and was directed by Chris Millado. I called it, in a nutshell, “at once powerful and frustrating, mythic and opaque.” (The full review here.)
Shortly after that, to my trepidation, I got a call from a man identifying himself as Mr. Jose's secretary. The author of the book whose stage adaptation I had just panned was said to be inviting me to visit him at his fabled Solidaridad bookshop in Ermita, Manila. Chris, a friend of mine who was a big fan of Mr. Jose, asked if he could tag along. I agreed, because I thought I would need the support once Mr. Jose, said to be a blunt talker, began unleashing his tirade on me.
When we arrived, we were led up to Mr. Jose's sanctum sanctorum on the second floor. To my surprise and utter relief, he greeted me heartily, told me to make myself comfortable, and began asking about my work, my background and my interests. Then he said: “I invited you here just to tell you that I like what you're doing. Keep it up. You should write more.”
And with that, my head was spinning. Did I hear that correctly? It was right I had brought Chris along. Always the better talker, he engaged Mr. Jose in animated conversation, reminding him they had, in fact, met once, in the US, when Mr. Jose had a talk at Stanford University and Chris drove from San Francisco to have his F. Sionil Jose books signed by his favorite author. I half-listened to them while my head processed the thought that Mr. Jose, a National Artist for Literature, said he read me and liked what he read.
Someone else came along soon after--Igan D'Bayan of The Philippine Star. We were treated to lunch at a nearby restaurant, Mr. Jose taking the effort to walk the distance, aided by a cane--and afterwards, to shots of brandy you couldn't say no to. The purpose of the invite became clearer: Igan and I were both covering the Arts/Culture scene for our respective papers, and Mr. Jose apparently wanted to offer a personal, encouraging pat on the back for what we were doing.
I didn't say it, but I was moved. This man was already a giant in Philippine literature--one of the country's true greats. He didn't have to do this. But he did.
His faith, to pilfer John Lahr's words, is something I have always carried with me.