Back in March 2020, Seattle’s Sara Porkalob was ready to take the next step in her career. With a Broadway run with the revival of “1776” on the horizon, all of her hard work was on the verge of paying off.
“When I was about to leave for the East Coast right before COVID[-19] hit, I was so ready,” said Porkalob. “This is what I’ve been working towards, literally my 10-year plan manifesting.”
But now, the forced stop of the pandemic that limited the in-person work of theatermakers, and postponed the anticipated run of “1776,” has put her on a new trajectory — one that has allowed her to give Seattle one more look at her powerful, contemplative solo work.
Playwright and performer Porkalob is currently running the first two parts of her “Dragon Cycle” at Café Nordo through March 6, the first part of which, “Dragon Lady,” ran to much acclaim back in 2017. Now she is performing “Dragon Mama,” the second in the three-part series about her family, in Seattle for the first time. In doing so in repertory with “Dragon Lady,” she’s giving audiences an even deeper look at the women that raised her and helped her develop into the powerhouse performer she’s become.
Where “Dragon Lady” spent its time focusing on the life led by Porkalob’s grandmother, “Dragon Mama” hones in on the upbringing of Porkalob’s mother, Maria Porkalob Jr., and Maria’s relationship with her four brothers and sisters and her mother. Performed again as a one-actor memoir, Porkalob enters a more subdued chapter in her family history as she crafts an intricate love letter to her mother.
Throughout the performance, Porkalob operates with the audience in the palm of her hand. Despite the rapid-fire pace of Porkalob performing multicharacter scenes alone, she manages to achieve captivating clarity as she glides between eliciting big laughs and bringing her audience to the verge of tears.
Credit should also be given to her collaboration with director Andrew Russell, sound designer Erin Bednarz and lighting designer Christopher Mumaw, who combine to create clean breaks as Porkalob flits quickly between the present moment and flashbacks.
Most impressive, though, is Porkalob’s highly economical writing, where she lets details other writers may leave in for the sake of completeness fall away, opting instead to trust her audience to follow the emotional throughline of her work.
Porkalob credits the upbringing highlighted in her work as a key to her writing style. She learned from an early age, she explained, the importance of seeing how potentially disparate events, decisions and people are actually intertwined. Despite being taught in college the Western, linear way of storytelling done by mostly white playwrights — which Porkalob said she never really felt connected to while studying — her work instead tracks the subtle ways interaction and experience led to action in her family’s life.
For example, early in “Dragon Mama,” Porkalob has a scene where Maria Jr. and her siblings are left alone, unsure of where their mother had gone and how long she’d be away. A more linear play could follow that trajectory, exploring where their mother was and why and examining their lives without her. Instead, Porkalob moves quickly forward, allowing her audience to pause just long enough to appreciate the rapid growth a then-teenage Maria Jr. underwent to take care of her family — the growing pains of which aren’t explicitly discussed, but that later weigh on her when she is finally asked to take care of a child on her own.
“I have realized that my methods of storytelling that I developed professionally for the last two years are the result of my upbringing, my outlook on life,” Porkalob said.
The result has been a freeing of Porkalob’s intuition, a constant questioning of what she’s doing and why, and an acute awareness of how her decisions affect others and how others affect her. This give and take has played into around 20 iterations of “Dragon Lady” and about eight drafts of “Dragon Mama.”
This has also resulted in one moment in “Dragon Mama” where Porkalob breaks the fourth wall. It comes at perhaps the lowest point in the story, a scene where Porkalob said the lines she wrote never quite felt right. Through some experimentation in the rehearsal room at American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts, she decided that, if the emotions of the moment were too high, she’d simplify and just talk to the audience.
“I always have a little bit of fear right before I say something,” Porkalob admitted, “that the intimacy of the moment will be broken or lost. But then the next thing that always happens is that, when I actually look at people in the crowd at that moment, if feels like I’m giving a gift to myself, like I’m allowing myself to be held, I supposed, by the audience.”
It’s become perhaps the most beautifully done moment in Porkalob’s play.
Porkalob is now working on developing the third part of the cycle, “Dragon Baby,” which she said will take place primarily during her senior year of undergrad, a period of her life when she made huge discoveries around the types of stories she wants to tell, which led to the creation of the cycle itself.
As she nears an end-of-March departure from Seattle to begin “1776” rehearsals in New York City, Porkalob acknowledged that both her “Dragon Cycle” — all three parts of which she hopes to run in repertory one day — and her work in “1776” could potentially change her life and career entirely, with increased opportunities and eyes on her work.
“I feel like I’m just a different person like so many of us are during this pandemic,” said Porkalob. “Whereas two years ago, I was about to be like, ‘Yes, go, forget why I’m doing what I’m doing because the money and the privilege is so good.’ Now, I’m just trying to move with integrity every day, as much as possible. That’s the hope.”