What’s one to do with newly uncovered family secrets?
For Sara Porkalob, the answer is to put them onstage.
The Seattle-based theater maker says the commonly known family history in her household always began with her mother’s mother, who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in the 1970s. But the stories her grandmother told seemed to change, depending on the audience. Porkalob set out to discover why.
The ever-updating results from her efforts are seen in “Dragon Lady,” a play with music (provided by an onstage band) that visits American Repertory Theater’s Oberon venue for four performances beginning Thursday. Porkalob wrote and performs the show (joined by one very special guest — more on that later), and Andrew Russell directs.
Its conceit is that Porkalob’s family is assembling to plan a 60th birthday party for its matriarch. To untangle her Grandmother Maria’s biography, which includes a spell as a nightclub singer with apparent ties to the Filipino mob, Porkalob assumes 30 different characters, examining the conflicting shards of anecdote and family tradition to tell not just the tale of her family but a story about Asian-American immigrants.
Porkalob, who just turned 29, says her family was initially troubled by the show, which originated in 2012 as a short monologue she wrote for a college assignment.
“How can you share this information, things about our family that other people may be ashamed of or may be taboo?” she says of that first reaction. “But ultimately, being able to render all of these characters in their complexity has been really cathartic and healing for my family, and really a big source of pride.”
“Dragon Lady” is the first full-length theatrical piece Porkalob, also a theater director, has written. So far it’s the leading candidate to become her life’s work. She says she frequently adds material to “Dragon Lady,” and past productions have included space for improvisation. She envisions it as the first chapter in a trilogy, and has already performed an early version of the second installment, which shifts focus from her grandmother to her mother. Eventually she’d like to see it expand to a series of performances adapted for television.
Porkalob’s aesthetic is directly influenced by her politics as an intersectional feminist and her desire to foreground her identity as an Asian-American woman in the theater she creates.
“I felt like so many of the examples of art that was held out to me as something I should work toward did not reflect my experience. It did not reflect my family as people of color, as immigrants, as people who grew up poor, as women. It really forced me to acknowledge that my education was missing and there was a lack of theater, of narrative, that reflected my experience, and therefore the experience of a lot of people who looked like me,” she says. “I decided that if I’m going to change the landscape I may as well start with where I started, which is my family.”
Mark Lunsford, the ART’s artistic producer, says that while the show doesn’t deal head-on with the issue of deportation, it’s particularly relevant amid the ongoing national conversation about the role of immigrants in this country.
“In the course of our debate around immigration, I think the people often get left out, and it ends up being this dehumanizing political conversation,” Lunsford says. “I think Sarah’s piece reminds us of the people at the core of this debate whose lives are being affected every day [and] the deep, rich cultures at the center of these immigration conversations.”
The show’s provocative title, Porkalob says, is an effort to re-appropriate an ethnic slur.
“It was a term that was meant to encompass a stereotype of Asian woman that was highly sexualized, as well as cunning and vindictive,” she says. “It seemed like an act of subversion as well as an act of empowerment to take a word that has commonly been in pop culture as a racial slur and to bend it to my will and imbue it with a different meaning that came from my own experience.”
A key part of her artistic efforts, she says, is to present women of color as complex individuals, with attributes and flaws — that is, to recognize them as fully human, not through a cultural frame that seeks both to summarize and undermine their identities.
Perhaps the most valuable audience feedback she’s received came the first time her grandmother, Maria Porkalob, saw “Dragon Lady.” (She herself now appears onstage in a key moment of the show.) It was a small room, Porkalob remembers, and her grandmother’s mid-show whispers to her seatmate were clearly audible.
“Why is she telling everybody my secrets?” Porkalob says she heard her ask early on. Ten minutes later, the initial protest changed to recognition: “That’s not how it was. Oh — no, that is how it was.”
Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Oberon, Cambridge, March 22-24. Tickets: From $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org