Sara Porkalob has been listening to her family share stories about their history all her life. The tales — by turns outrageous, harrowing, heartbreaking, and hilarious — were recounted by her mother, aunts, and uncles about their lives growing up as the impoverished children of a Filipino immigrant woman in Bremerton, Wash.
They were eye-opening accounts, and while they made her laugh out loud, parts of them were deeply alarming, too. There was the time Porkalob’s diminutive grandmother, Maria, flipped over a guy at a bingo hall after he sexually harassed her, or when her mother, also named Maria and then a teenager, exacted revenge on a kid who had bullied her younger sister by pouring urine on him. Or when her grandmother disappeared for two weeks, leaving her five young children to fend for themselves, or how Porkalob’s uncles posed as Boy Scouts collecting donations in order to scavenge enough food to eat.
Those family narratives served as the inspiration for Porkalob’s visionary “Dragon Cycle,” planned as an ambitious trilogy of plays with music, created and performed by Porkalob herself and honoring the three generations of Filipino-American women in her family. The first two memoirs in the cycle, the solo shows “Dragon Lady” and “Dragon Mama,” are presented in repertory at the American Repertory Theater’s Oberon performance space, March 20 through April 6.
“Dragon Lady,” which centered on Porkalob’s grandmother, was performed by Porkalob last March at Oberon and earned considerable buzz despite its short run. The return engagement features new songs by Peter Irving. Part two, “Dragon Mama,” which will receive its world premiere at Oberon, focuses on her mother’s story. In each, Porkalob plays more than two dozen characters. ART has also commissioned Porkalob to develop the third installment, “Dragon Baby,” that recounts her own personal story through the form of the “great American musical,” using an ensemble of actors.
An inspiration for “Dragon Lady” were the disturbing tales Porkalob heard about her grandmother’s early life in the Philippines. She spent part of her childhood in a brothel after the death of her mother, was later forced into prostitution, got caught up in a Filipino street gang, and wound up pregnant. But she had a gorgeous voice, sang in a nightclub, and was a consummate survivor. Still, the stories always seemed to shift depending on who her grandmother was talking to, and Porkalob wanted to understand why.
“One of the major points about writing ‘Dragon Lady’ is that I was trying to suss out what the real story was,” says Porkalob, 30, between bites of her lunch before a recent rehearsal. “And I realized this is actually more about storytelling than it is about the actual true bare-bones story of what happened, and how the act of storytelling changes the context and understanding for people, and how it can be a vehicle for healing and change and understanding. And whoa, that’s powerful to me!”
The “Dragon Lady” title comes out of Porkalob’s desire to reclaim and re-appropriate the racial stereotype of the alluring-yet-dangerous Asian femme fatale. In the play, her family is throwing a 60th birthday bash for Porkalob’s charismatic, karaoke-loving grandmother, but the action shifts back and forth in time as it puzzles out the mysteries surrounding Maria’s background, her years in the Philippines, and her unexplained absences and secrets.
While the anecdotes and stories may be troubling and heartbreaking, Porkalob says the laughs grow out of her family’s cockeyed way of retelling them. “Everything’s funny in my family, even when it’s tragic. Which is exactly like my shows — tragic and hilarious,” she says. “Humor has been the vehicle for my family to be able to survive and tell these accounts in a joyous way and be proud of them. I was taught by society to be ashamed of being poor and being a woman and being a person of color, of having queer parents. But I’m not ashamed, and I shouldn’t be!”
Neither was her family when they saw her revealing their stories onstage. Porkalob says some of their initial hesitation gave way to “incredulity, then hilarity, then pride.” She could hear them whispering in the middle of the show, “Oh, my god. What is she doing? I can’t believe she’s telling people this . . . How does she know that? . . . That’s not what happened . . . That’s totally how it happened,” Porkalob recalls, with a laugh. “Then they were crying because it’s always very truthful.”
While “Dragon Lady” explores her family’s history through the lens of her grandmother’s tumultuous upbringing and the difficulties she and her children faced after they came to America, “Dragon Mama” is her mother’s story from the age of 10 to 24. It’s the account of growing up as an immigrant in a poor community with a sometimes absent mother who struggled to nurture her children. The younger Maria also grapples with the anxiety of helping to care for her very young siblings, not knowing where their next meal would come from.
“When she got pregnant with me, she wanted desperately to make a different life for me but didn’t know how,” Porkalob says. “The only model of motherhood that my mom had was my grandma. My grandma is a very interesting and multi-faceted woman. But my mom knew that she didn’t want to raise me the way that my grandma raised her. She wanted to give me things that she didn’t have.”
Maria makes the painful decision to go to Alaska to find high-paying work on fishing boats — leaving a young Sara behind in Seattle with family. In Anchorage, she meets Tina, who becomes Sara’s other mother and a transformative force in their lives.
The first two installments of the trilogy diverge in form. Porkalob describes “Dragon Lady” as a two-act cabaret with music and a band, where “my grandmother’s the boss.” In it, Porkalob moves through the Oberon space and interacts with the audience, while shape-shifting into 32 different characters using only her face and voice. In “Dragon Mama,” Porkalob embodies 26 different roles and remains onstage, performing the piece on a small floating platform.
“The stories are stunning, and the mission of the piece is exactly what theater should be doing these days,” says the director of the cycle, Andrew Russell. “The multi-layering of stories, the use of different forms, the breadth of the whole thing, absolutely thrilled me. I’ve constantly been fanning the flames and saying, ‘Go, go, go.’ This is three big plays, and the world needs them.”
Digging into the past has made the process of creating and performing the work emotionally draining at times. “I don’t wear eyeliner in the rehearsal room anymore because I know I’m just going to cry it off later on. The first two years of working on it, I would come home exhausted — and sad! And I’d be afraid to work on it the next day. But I’m not afraid of it anymore,” she says.
“I know and trust that the true emotions I’m feeling are all part of the process. It’s a shouting of my family’s existence and of people who look like us. It’s taking up space because we’ve been here all along. And it always comes back to celebration.”
Dragon LadY/DRAGON MAMA
Presented by the American Repertory Theater/ART Breakout Series. March 20-April 6 (“Dragon Lady”) and March 28-April 6 (“Dragon Mama”). At: Oberon, Cambridge. Tickets: From $25; 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org