Baby Barredo, stage mother of PH theater, takes final bow
To the generations of artists who had grown up and spread their wings in Repertory Philippines (Rep), the country’s foremost English-language theater company, the death of company cofounder and mentor Carmen “Baby” Johnson Barredo came as a shock. The community had mourned the death of another Rep elder statesman, Freddie Santos, only in December last year.
But Barredo’s daughter, Charlie, posted on social media that her mother had indeed passed away due to multiple organ failure caused by sepsis.
During the next few days, Barredo’s extended family, blood and artistic, attended virtually or in person the necrological services at Santuario de San Antonio Parish Church in Makati City. She was cremated on May 27.
The tributes on social media are still coming in, all of them uniformly acknowledging Barredo’s consummate professionalism and how she had changed their lives and helped stoke their lifetime passion for theater.
One example is the post of Cara Barredo, actress and Barredo’s niece. “She was the fiercest woman I’ve ever known and we are more than happy that we get to share her with all of you. She passed away at 7:47 p.m. … her 10-minute call. Someone probably said ‘actors ready!’ and off she went … to the most important performance of her life!”
Audie Gemora, who cofounded theater company Trumpets and the industry organization Philstage, was a teen when he started his career in Rep. He likened Rep, back in the ’70s, to a mom-and-pop operation where “professional and personal lines were blurred. Since we spent more time around each other than our own families, we became family.”
Barredo and Rep cofounder Zenaida “Bibot” Amador, who died in 2008, were their “stage parents.” Prior to Amador’s death 13 years ago, it was hard to think of one Rep founder without the other. Amador and Barredo launched Rep in 1967 with a vision of developing, promoting and showcasing Filipino dramatic talent. Both held the reins of creative leadership, while Amador focused on directing and Barredo gained a name as one of the foremost actresses of her generation.
Mentor of performers
The young Barredo had her own share of mentors before meeting Amador. The Rep website names Daisy Avellana as her teacher in drama, and Fides Cuyugan-Asencio, Lucretia Kasilag and Ines Zialcita as her coaches for voice. She studied drama in New York’s American Conservatory of Dramatic Arts. But it was Amador who helped unleash that talent, not just as an actress, but as a mentor of performers in her own right.
In retrospect, had that fateful first meeting between Barredo and Amador not happened, the former could have joined and cofounded another theater company: Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta), established by Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, Barredo’s old friend and batchmate in St. Paul College.
From the late 1960s, Rep and Peta blazed the trail for the establishment of National Captial Region-based theater companies that could sustain yearly seasons of plays, a stable roster of artists and performers, and a growing audience. Both, however, took different routes to do it: Peta led in creating homegrown Filipino material and adapting foreign classics into Tagalog and other dialects, while Rep emphasized the development of talent who would perform and produce proven English-language plays.
That vision drew criticism over the years, but it proved instrumental to Rep’s 50-year success that has led to about 500 stage plays and the formation of over 50 artists.
Vindication came in the late 1980s, when a dozen Rep artists like Lea Salonga, Monique Wilson, Michael Williams and Junix Inocian (among others) were chosen to perform in Cameron Mackintosh’s landmark musical “Miss Saigon” in the United Kingdom. Aside from Salonga earning her Tony and Olivier awards, the success of the Rep-trained thespians in “Saigon” opened the doors for other Filipino artists—and not just Rep alumni—to audition and perform in Broadway and West End musicals like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Lion King.”
No stage parent could have been prouder than Barredo when she saw her first batch of proteges performing in front of a West End audience. As she said in an Inquirer interview, “The Repertory actors and actresses are my children. I am proud of them. Tears fell from my eyes when I saw ‘Miss Saigon’ in London.”
Barredo would soon nurture her creative heirs in other directions shortly after Amador’s death. While still involved in creative decisions and always available for consultations and discussions, she slowly started training them to take on greater Rep responsibilities, like a mother passing on heavier family duties to her brood.
She appeared to be semiretired when she returned for her penultimate and critically acclaimed performance in “August: Osage County.” It had been years since her last acting showcase, but she returned, unable to resist the meaty role that became the must-watch acting turn in 2014.
“Osage County” director Chris Millado remembered the challenge that faced Barredo: “How could Tita Baby, then past 70, with an earnest smoker’s cough that would render her breathless after taking a few vigorous steps across the stage, manage all of these physicalities required by the role?” Liesl Batucan, Rep’s current artistic director and an “Osage County” cast member, assured Millado that the senior actress could do it—and Barredo did deliver, leaving loyal theater audiences wanting another performance from Rep’s elder stateswoman in another production.
Barredo’s encore came in Bart Guingona’s “4000 Miles” in 2015, as she quietly retreated to the sidelines, occasionally resurfacing in Rep events like Amador’s death anniversary. When she did emerge, it was for directorial stints like Rep’s “Father’s Day” in 2019 and “Guadalupe: The Musical,” which was produced by another company. that time, she was Rep’s chair and artistic director emeritus. The Philippine theater stage was also going through its own transformation.
Some of Rep’s alumni like Gemora, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, Guingona, Rem Zamora and Robbie Guevara had long put up and were running their own theater companies.
A friendlier and less polarized environment had also arisen, with artists from other theater houses like Millado, Cultural Center of the Philippines president, working with Rep, and vice versa.
The theater industry was also sufficiently organized to recognize their leaders and pioneers while they were still in a position to appreciate it. Philstage named Barredo its 2011 Philstage Natatanging Gawad Buhay! Awardee at the 2011 Gawad Buhay! Awards on July 2012. In accepting the award, Barredo said that what everyone was celebrating that night was “the talent of the Filipino.”
It was a collective, national “gift” she had dedicated the rest of her life to, and was blessed to see its enhancement in the theater in her lifetime.
This was acknowledged in Rep’s tribute to her on their website: “Known for her unrelenting passion and discipline, artistic excellence, boldness and abounding love, Tita Baby’s legacy lives on in every Rep artist and audience member whose love and passion for theater she has powerfully and indelibly set alight.” —CONTRIBUTED