Words by Diep Tran
Actor, playwright, and preeminent multihyphenate, Sara Porkalob is currently making her Broadway debut in the revival of the musical 1776. The role she is playing: a white slave owner named Edward Rutledge, who was a real person and one of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence. Porkalob is Filipino American. And during the show, she sings a song about slavery.
“I think that my performance has been described as ‘unhinged,’” Porkalob says, with a smile. “And I love it, because white supremacists are fucking unhinged!”
Women of color, nay people of color, don’t usually appear in 1776, and that’s why this new revival is so groundbreaking. The musical, written by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, is considered a classic theater piece. It details how America’s Founding Fathers came to the unanimous decision to declare independence against Great Britain: in short, it wasn’t easy and there was a lot of arguing in a very hot, stuffy room in Philadelphia. 1776 was first presented on Broadway in 1969, where it won the Tony Award for best musical.
Not only are there usually no BIPOC characters in 1776, but aside from two minor women characters, there’s very little female energy in the show. It is usually done by a cast of all-white, mostly male, actors, representing delegates from the 13 American colonies. But in this new revival, the Founding Fathers are played by a cast of female, trans, and non-binary actors. And they’re a diverse crew: John Adams, who leads the charge on independence, is played by Black actor Crystal Lucas-Perry. Black actor Patrena Murray plays Adams’s key ally, Benjamin Franklin.
And the audience knows the actors playing these men are women. The cast display their femininity very prominent onstage: they wear jewelry, they’re rocking bold lipstick, Elizabeth A. Davis (who plays Thomas Jefferson) is very visibly pregnant. As Porkalob remarks, in her characteristically blunt manner, “It’s not entirely a sausage fest.” The new production of 1776 is currently running on Broadway until January 8, 2023 (and among its attendees have been Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson).
Porkalob’s performance has been acclaimed. The Washington Post called her “dazzling,” shouting out in particular “Molasses to Rum,” the song Porkalob sings in the show that has earned her enthusiastic applause every night on Broadway: “Porkalob prosecutes the interlude with a smile that radiates guile and superiority. This is a triumphantly malicious capstone to the proceedings.”
What’s even more astounding is Porkalob never intended to go to Broadway. Porkalob grew up in Seattle, in a Filipino immigrant family where every gathering was accompanied by karaoke. In high school, when Porkalob told her mom that she wanted to be an actor, her mom responded with, “Maybe you can be a pharmacist. And you can still do acting on the side.”
When Porkalob responded with, “Mommy, I'm gonna play a doctor on TV one day,” she recalls that her mom was unfazed. “She was like, ‘Oh, okay, love you!’”
Porkalob studied acting at Cornish College of the Arts, and that was when she realized how hostile the entertainment industry is to artists of color. She was regularly casted as “the racist Japanese lady, or the Latino girl, when we actually had Latino girls in our class who could have played that,” she says. She eventually learned that as an Asian American actor who could sing, her options in theater were limited to “Kim in Miss Saigon.”
After taking a solo performance course in college, Porkalob realized that if she wanted to play parts with substance, she would have to create them herself, and that “being an artist isn't only about getting the gigs that I dream of, but perhaps it's about something more important,” she explains. “And that's when I really started to build my individual pedagogy, when I started calling myself an intersectional feminist, when I started calling out the racism, the sexism, the classism that I saw.” Since she graduated from college in 2012, Porkalob has made a name for herself in Seattle as a theater artist, not just acting and singing, but writing, directing, and as an advocate for diversity in the arts. In 2018, Seattle Magazine called her one of the city’s most influential people.
In short, Porkalob has always wanted to control her own career. Even playing slave owner Edward Rutledge in 1776 was her idea. In 2018, inspired by the success of Hamilton, director Diane Paulus was conceptualizing a version of 1776 with a racially diverse cast made entirely of women—as a way to show that while the Founding Fathers were speaking about freedom and how “all men are created equal,” they were ignoring women (who had no voting power) and Black people (who were still enslaved). Having the kinds of people who were once barred from Congress play those historic white men would be a way to throw that hypocrisy into sharp focus.
At the time, Porkalob was performing her one-woman-show Dragon Lady, about her grandmother, at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Paulus runs that theater. After seeing Porkalob perform, Paulus asked her to be a part of 1776 and which role she would want to play.
Porkalob responded with: “Who’s the motherfucker with the best song?” The answer was Rutledge, who would also let Porkalob challenge herself as an actor: “I'm not typically cast to play the anti-hero, unless I write it myself. People are like, ‘Oh, she's funny. And she's short. And she's Brown. She's, like, the character actress.’”
Rutledge is not funny. In fact, he’s pretty evil. In the musical, Rutledge objects to independence, and that objection culminates in the aforementioned song “Molasses to Rum.” In that part of the show, Congress is debating whether to sign the Declaration of Independence. But Rutledge objects to the document, in particular a passage that condemned slavery as an “assemblage of horrors” (this is actually true and not normally taught in history class).
“I'm trying to write a fuck ton of plays and musicals that kind of, like, shuffle those white guys out.”
“Molasses to Rum” is about how the Northern states are hypocrites who also benefit from slavery, because they provide the rum that the Americas use to trade for slaves. As the New York Times puts it, “the fact that [Porkalob] is Filipino American both intensifies and complicates the argument.” Rutledge basically forces Thomas Jefferson to strike the passage about the evils of slavery; in exchange, Rutledge and the Southern states will support independence. It’s a devil’s bargain.
Porkalob is aware of the subtext that can come from having an Asian woman sing a song about slavery and white supremacy: the model minority myth, the fetishization of Asian women, how certain Asians aspire to whiteness. “I'm thinking about all those things, I know all of those things. I wear some of those things on my skin,” she explains. “It's portrayed for the people who look for and think about those things. If you have woke Filipinos in the audience, they're going to be aware that a huge portion of the Filipino American population voted for Trump."
At the same time, when it comes time to perform, Porkalob has to put away some of that subtext to focus on playing the character, which she considers the “physical manifestation of charming Southern white supremacy.” And part of her job is to show how seductive white supremacy can be.
Because Rutledge doesn’t shout to get what he wants. Instead he is cunning and deliberate, not unlike current Republican politicians. “White supremacy is the culture by which America was founded. It's everywhere, so people can't see it. It's like air. It's like gravity. So what we have to do is to consistently make it visible,” says Porkalob forcefully. And white supremacists, from 1776 onward, are “always charismatic, articulate, passionate leaders. They prey on people's weaknesses and fears. They prey on people's desire to belong to a community.”
Despite the acclaim, Porkalob admits that she does have complicated feelings about making her Broadway debut while playing a white man. In the rehearsal room, the non-Black POC cast members of 1776 objected to having to play slave owners in "Molasses to Rum," while the Black cast members were playing slaves on an auction block. "There was no conversation with us POC folks about what that meant for us to be assimilated into whiteness. Because [directors Jeffrey Page and Diane Paulus were deliberately prioritizing the Black folks," says Porkalob, pointing out that Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans were also enslaved in the Americas. "What [the directors] unconsciously did is they unconsciously harmed some non-Black POC folks. And what happened? We had a conversation, and we looped in our EDI consultants. And the non-Black POC folks had an affinity space with the directors and we talked it out. And they got our consent to do the reenactment." Though Porkalob does admit that some of her cast mates still feel "tension" when playing white slaveowners onstage.
It’s the same complications that can be found in Hamilton, where actors of color are also portraying the Founding Fathers. It can also be found in period dramas such as Bridgerton, where actors of color are playing characters in Regency England, yet their race is never brought up. Running at the same time as 1776 is a revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but with an all-Black cast.
In trying to be colorblind and including actors of color in these stories that were historically all white, does it also serve to prioritize white stories and white historical figures? And does it deny actors of color their full humanity? As Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson said in a 1996 speech: “To mount an all-Black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as Black Americans.”
Porkalob thinks the answer is complex. “This is the first step towards other stuff,” she believes. “From a Broadway perspective, the easiest thing to do is to take an old white play and put POC people in it. And that has its pros, and its cons. The obvious pro is that POC actors are getting work. People in these audiences are seeing POC people in these roles that they haven't seen before. And all of that is good.”
At the same time, Porkalob also believes the long-term goal should be to have more works created by artists of color—so it’s not just white history being portrayed, but history of BIPOC folks, as well. “I want to be doing my stuff, ASAP. I want to be doing brand new works by BIPOC creatives ASAP. I don't want to play white guys forever,” she says, with a certain dose of weariness.
That is why as soon as Porkalob is done with 1776, she’s heading straight into making her own work. For the past 10 years, Porkalob has been working on a series of plays about her own family. One play, Dragon Lady, is about her grandmother, who was a nightclub singer in the Philippines and whose sister was a sex slave for soldiers during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Another play, Dragon Mama, was about Porkalob’s mother who left her family (including her children) to move to Alaska, where she discovered that she was a lesbian. Both plays were performed by Porkalob to acclaim in Seattle and Cambridge.
So after 1776, Porkalob will create the final play in her family trilogy: Dragon Baby, which will be about herself, and it will be a musical. American Repertory Theater has committed to producing the play, alongside an encore engagement of Dragon Lady and Dragon Mama, when Porkalob is done (she predicts either in 2024 or 2025).
Speaking about her grandmother, who passed away over the summer, Porkalob becomes teary. “I remember the first time I did a one-act version of Dragon Lady, my grandmother's sitting, like, 10 feet away from me. Ten minutes into the play, she leans over to my mom, asking, ‘Why is she telling everybody my secrets?’” says Porkalob. But by the end, as her grandmother saw people crying and then applauding her story, she was amazed that “our story, our basic, sad life tragedy of growing up poor would speak to so many people who aren't like Filipino.’”
In short, Porkalob may be playing a white guy on Broadway now, but she’s looking forward to when she can be on Broadway telling an Asian American story. “I'm trying to write a fuck ton of plays and musicals that kind of, like, shuffle those white guys out,” Porkalob says with conviction. “You’ve had your time, white guy!”
Published on October 14, 2022
Words by Diep Tran
Diep Tran is a culture critic/reporter/editor based in New York City. Her loves include musical theater and period dramas. She interviewed Keanu Reeves once and got him to admit he was Asian. Twitter: @DiepThought