Sara Porkalob has taken Seattle by storm — as a playwright, director, actor, singer, storyteller, leader and curator, all through an activist lens.
Porkalob is perhaps best known for her Dragon Cycle, in which she shares stories of her family through the rich, near-mythical characters of its matriarchs. Dragon Lady (about her storied grandmother) won three Gregory Awards; and the saga’s multiple iterations have drawn enthusiastic audiences and critical acclaim, both locally and in Cambridge. She premiered Dragon Mama (about her mother) at American Repertory Theatre, which also commissioned the third chapter, Dragon Baby (about Porkalob herself).
And she’s just getting started.
This week, her new play, 7th and Jackson, premieres at Café Nordo; and another of her new plays, Alex & Alix, is slated in the upcoming season at ArtsWest. Meanwhile, she continues to direct (including Susan Lieu’s hot-selling solo work 140 LBS, which has an encore run this month at Theatre Off Jackson), act (including in The 5th Avenue Theatre’s Rock of Ages earlier this year), and lead (with City of Seattle, Intiman Theatre, and an eye on a political run down the road).
NWT talked with Porkalob about artist-activism, telling her family stories before audiences on both coasts, and of course her new play, 7th and Jackson, which opens this Friday.
Interview content is condensed and edited for clarity.
You recently brought Dragon Lady to the American Repertory Theater at Harvard, and premiered Dragon Mama there as well. Did the East Coast audience feel different? Was that the first time you’ve performed it away from Seattle?
The east coast audience DID feel different, and they also felt like home. Not having grown up there, I assumed my desired audience base — people of color, young people, families, immigrants, queer folx — wouldn’t show up. But they did. Multiple times. Every night. We’ve always been here. It was a good reminder that Seattle isn’t the only place I can make art.
The first time I performed at A.R.T. in spring 2018 was my first time acting outside of Seattle AND my first time performing anything Dragon Cycle-related outside of Seattle as well. BOOM.
[Your shows at A.R.T. received a lot of press, and great press at that. What is coverage there doing right, or differently than press in Seattle?]
Boston press has more financial resources; the city can afford to have a saturation of press outlets, because they have the money. As far as what they’re doing right… I’m biased! My show received great press because A.R.T. has a reputation, resources, and infrastructure to encourage press attendance. If you were to ask this question of Boston artists who’ve made work there longer than I have, you might receive a different answer.
Dragon Baby, which A.R.T. commissioned, turns from the elder two generations now to you yourself. How do you decide what truths to share in a setting that’s at once so public and so intimate, and what to leave unsaid? What landmines or dangers have you had to navigate in writing about your family, and now in writing about yourself?
I’m fortunate in that there are very little or zero landmines or dangers that I have to navigate when writing about my family, because we have no shame in sharing our truths. As long as I’m telling the truth and honoring their complex experience, I’m doing the work. If I’m exploiting them or reducing them to stereotypes, I am not acting with integrity.
All of us have unconscious, internalized shame, inferiority, or superiority and these unconscious and conscious things manifest in many different ways in individuals. Often, they manifest as fear, doubt, or shame, and I always try to prioritize people over those feelings. I always try to center people in my work. And if I center people, I work from integrity and compassion.
Your upcoming show, 7th and Jackson, is about three friends in WWII-era Seattle, specifically the International District. How long has this script been in development, and what inspired it? Whose stories does it tell?
Back in college (2008-2012) I kept a folder in my email where I would jot down the random ideas I had for plays. These ideas would sometimes be one sentence, sometimes full outlines. The idea for 7th and Jackson started in 2012 when I had started writing solo work. I wrote one sentence for a possible one act, “1930s-1940s: a little Chinese girl in Seattle’s ID who wants to be a jazz singer. She lives next door to a club and falls asleep every night lulled by the piano, the saxophone, and crooning of America’s next Lena Horne.”
Seattle had a very vibrant music scene from 1920s-1960s and Jackson Street was a hotbed of jazz houses, owned and operated by primarily Black business owners. Adjacent to Jackson Street and more central in the ID were gambling houses/restaurants owned by the Chinese tongs (old families/gangs). I was intrigued by the mixing of ethnic enclaves that happened in that area, specifically in the clubs, dance halls, and community places. You would always find bi-racial couples in the clubs, uncommon elsewhere in the city. It was actually Black and Filipino activists working together who fought and won against the anti-miscegenation laws that Washington tried to pass in the 1930s.
I wanted to write about WWII and Seattle’s ID because most of the literature I had access to while growing up here focused on the Japanese community and what happened to them post Pearl Harbor. I wondered, “What was the city like for the other major ethnic enclaves in the neighborhood?” For example, during that time there wasn’t a large Korean population in Seattle BUT Korean and Taiwanese people were considered ethnically Japanese because they were under Japanese imperial rule. I wondered what it would be like to have a friendship between a Black girl, a Filipina girl, and a Korean girl impacted differently by the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
[And how does the show speak to the country at this moment?]
American is still a white supremacist nation with a history we need to reckon with.
You’ve described yourself as an “artist-activist.” What does that mean in your work, and how does that impact the work you pursue?
We all exist within white dominant culture and this culture perpetuates intersecting systems of oppression. These systems affect each and everyone of us in different ways. I call myself an “artist-activist” because ALL of my art seeks to dismantle the culture and systems and replace them with a culture that is truly inclusive and relational.
I heard something about Broadway. What can you dish?
Remember my acceptance speech for Outstanding Actress in Dragon Lady last year? I told people I was excited to tear up the east coast and win my Tonys. I’m not a liar. That’s all I can say.
Bonus Round: Quickie Q&A
What are you dreaming up next? Fried chicken wings and thrillers. Like, penning thriller plays.
What are you most excited to see in Seattle this season? All the butts walking around in shorts in this summer weather.
What’s your current Seattle food/dining out obsession? Fried chicken wings at Tai-Tung or Fou Lee Market.
What do you wish Seattle had more of? I wish that Seattle had more progressive local tax policy, like an income tax on at least the top 2% of earners in King County. I also wish that Seattle had more blood onstage.
7th & Jackson runs 7/19 thru 8/11 at Café Nordo in Pioneer Square. Tickets are $79 (including four-course meal), available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.