Just when you try to define Sara Porkalob, you have to add another hyphen.
This multifaceted Seattle artist is an actor, a writer, a director, an educator, a producer—and a terrific singer. Or just go with her self-description: “I would say that I’m a storyteller and an activist,” Porkalob says. “I’m an activist for my own Asian Pacific Islander community, and I advocate not just for racial representation but for representation of all kinds.”
Though she’s toiled at numerous Seattle theatres in various capacities since graduating from Cornish College of the Arts in 2012, Porkalob has earned the most attention for a work drawn from her own life. Her self-written solo piece Dragon Lady is an entertaining, provocative visit with a character closely based on Porkalob’s grandmother Maria, an indomitable Filipina immigrant to the U.S. The show finds the zestful, sardonic Maria on her 60th birthday, regaling her young granddaughter Sara with scenes from her colorful, complex, at times painful past, including her exploits as a nightclub singer and a gangster’s moll. Eventually the frame expands to portray Maria in relation to the daughters she raised mainly on her own, including Sara’s mother.
While studded with classic and original torch songs, sensuously performed by Porkalob and a live jazz combo, Dragon Lady doesn’t romanticize her gutsy forebear. The piece also spotlights the difficulties faced by a financially strapped immigrant single mom in America, registering how the aftershocks of an unreliable parent’s early trauma and unfulfilled ambitions can affect her offspring. In one harrowing segment, Maria disappears on enigmatic outings, leaving her young daughters to fend for themselves and raise one another.
Dragon Lady—the title offering an ironic twist on the pop-culture racial stereotype of the “exotic” Asian femme fatale—was just eight minutes long in its first incarnation, Porkalob says. It was an outgrowth, she explains, of the anger and disappointment she felt in college “as an Asian woman who had very little access to curriculum and pedagogy that were relevant to a woman of color making work. The plays we were doing didn’t represent my experience, or my family’s experience.”
Over several years she shaped, expanded, and performed Dragon Lady at numerous Seattle venues, including a run at the neo-dinner theatre Café Nordo, where Filipino cuisine was incorporated into the show. Intiman Theatre presented a full-length, food-free version in 2017, staged by then-Intiman artistic head Andrew Russell. It even included pop-up appearances by her still-peppy grandma Maria.
Next spring Porkalob will bring Dragon Lady to American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., as part of the A.R.T. Break Out series, along with a new solo sequel, Dragon Mama, which focuses on Porkalob’s mother.
Porkalob stresses that delving into family biography is “not therapy for me. It’s fulfilling and it’s rigorous. I had to recreate a model out of nothing, a way of storytelling about my family members that was as unique as they are. I do it to honor their resilience, their history as well.”
Porkalob also is working on Dragon Baby, a third and final chapter in her matriarchal family album. “This one won’t be a solo show,” she says. “The container for it is my senior year at Cornish. So it begins with me receiving my senior thesis assignment, and ends with me writing the very first lines of Dragon Lady.”
In the meantime Porkalob is busy and in demand on several other fronts too. She teaches at Seattle’s Freehold Theatre school, and has plans to create a podcast, a book, and other projects. And this February she’ll be belting out tunes (“My favorite thing to do”) in a run of the jukebox musical Rock of Ages at 5th Avenue Theatre.
“I’m playing Regina, the activist. When I got cast I thought, wow, how fitting,” she declares with a laugh. “It’ll be so campy and awesome.”