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Commentary

Turns out, Broadway, in fact, wasn’t ready for Sara Porkalob. In a 2020 interview with The Seattle Times, the powerhouse Seattle artist said, of her forthcoming Broadway debut and entry into the national theatrical world: “They’re not ready for me.” Fast forward two years and Porkalob has recently taken to the Broadway stage in the revival of “1776.” The show received mixed reviews, with critics generally admiring the choice to tell this story of the Founding Fathers — typically performed by a group of white men — instead with an ethnically diverse cast of women, nonbinary and transgender performers. Still, it’s “1776,” which originally premiered in 1969, and there’s some antiquated material that’s hard to get past. But it’s an interview Porkalob did with Vulture, published late last week, that has people buzzing about the musical.

In the wide-ranging Q&A, Porkalob — who has made a name for herself in Seattle theater, including creating her own acclaimed works such as the “Dragon Cycle” following the women in her Filipino American family — dives into her thoughts on everything “1776.” Topics range from what it feels like to not be in the driver’s seat when it comes to directorial decisions to how she felt race and gender were handled in the rehearsal room. This included giving a behind-the-scenes peek into the rehearsal decisions that went into Porkalob’s big number, “Molasses to Rum,” which Porkalob said caused harm by how they were handled. In parts of the interview, Porkalob also notes that “1776” is, in the end, just a job, a career move on her way to her many goals.

A firestorm ensued. Initial reactions on social media in the hours after the article came out seemed to fall along the lines of what newly named Playbill editor-in-chief Diep Tran tweeted: that one lesson from the interview was that artists “are allowed to be honest and say what is and isn’t working. And when you’re doing stuff for the paycheck.” But strong detractors disagreed. Some, like Broadway director Douglas Lyons, noted that the article itself may have caused more harm than Porkalob intended, tweeting that “BIPOC artists were hurt by that article,” referring to artists who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. One of the musical’s co-directors, Jeffrey Page, who posted a terse Facebook response to a “nameless person,” called them “ungrateful and unwise,” “rotten to the core” and “fake-woke.” The story was even picked up by The New York Times.

A lot of the heat around Porkalob’s comments stemmed from talking about the rehearsal process that went into staging the part of “1776” that was meant to evoke a slave auction and the overall handling of race and gender. As she details in Vulture, the directors sought the approval of the Black actors in the musical — as they absolutely should have — but they didn’t hold consideration for other actors of color in the show. Porkalob, who transforms into a slave auctioneer during the number, noted that this upheld a “false narrative” by lumping non-Black people of color in with whiteness and “using race as a binary.” She also noted that gender identity and sexual identity “weren’t talked about,” with the team prioritizing “the social identifier of race as a driving creative choice more than anything else.” And she went on to say that she was “cringing” at some of the staging choices. Porkalob declined to comment for this article.

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The fallout was, admittedly, frustrating to watch. The thing is, nothing Porkalob said was especially surprising and fits more in the vein of issues artists have experienced in rehearsals before, but that typically aren’t discussed publicly. These things need to be freely discussed. One of the major drumbeats behind change in the theater industry over the last two years has been a push for transparency and more honesty. It’s thanks to folks speaking up over the last two years that there have been shifts toward paid internships and providing actors with a more standard five-day workweek, neither of which were standards pre-pandemic. Previous standards of unpaid internships and overbearing rehearsal hours preyed on the mentality that theatermakers should just be grateful because they’re doing something they love.

Even if they love what they do, artists should be allowed to talk openly about their art, even critiquing it and its process. Sure, there needs to be respect for others within the production, but it seems unhealthy to force artists to pretend that every production they’re in is pristine and perfect in every way, when we all know it’s a process and opening night comes whether you like it or not.

Porkalob’s criticisms aren’t condemnations; they’re learning opportunities. But there seems to be a general fear, even outside of theater as movie stars speak glowingly about every project they’re in, that artists speaking openly about a currently running show will harm that production. It could hurt ticket sales or public perception, the argument goes. It could hurt the backstage dynamics with castmates. That fear seemed to shut down productive conversations around Porkalob’s words. According to The New York Times, Porkalob did apologize to the show’s company for violating a typically unspoken “what’s said in the room, stays in the room” agreement. 

“My intention was to share an important moment of learning I had in the piece,” Porkalob said in an email to the show’s company obtained by The New York Times, “specifically how I was proud to be a part of an ensemble that was able to deftly handle these complex issues, rather than not saying anything and pretending things didn’t happen.”

In the end, this is just a job, whether those who pretend it’s some blessing want to admit it or not, and there’s nothing wrong with saying you have ambitions beyond whatever show you’re in currently. This is why I bristled as folks also glommed onto Porkalob saying she doesn’t feel like “1776” is artistically fulfilling. Toward the end of the Vulture article, Porkalob notes that she’s only giving 75% of herself in the show — 90% during “Molasses to Rum.” As Porkalob would later tweet to clarify, she’s referring to saving part of herself mentally, emotionally and physically so that she has energy left for her own artistic work and doesn’t find herself completely drained by putting 100% of her being into “1776.” 

It was truly bizarre to watch folks latch onto these particular comments of Porkalob’s. I could direct you to an entire TikTok series openly joking about the fact that Broadway performers, when on stage with their microphones off, may talk to each other about things unrelated to the show, proving they can balance not being fully engaged with giving fantastic performances. And it’s obvious to anyone who has spent any time talking to Porkalob that “1776” isn’t the pinnacle of her career; she has aspirations that go far beyond. So why expect her to act like this role is some gift she didn’t earn and call her “ungrateful”?

To Porkalob’s credit, she’s taken all of this in stride. She tweeted a public apology “for the pain I’ve caused my team” while also standing behind her statements. And she should. It’s just a job. And we can’t honestly expect artists to quiet their honesty now that the industry is back producing in full force again. Porkalob — in an interview that goes far beyond these points that folks are clinging to — talked about her art and experience honestly. Art is messy and imperfect, as is the creation of that art. I’ve had artists and members of the theater community reach out after a review — yes, even ones where I didn’t care much for the show — and extend grace and understanding for my point of view on their work. As I sit here, I can’t fathom why some can’t extend that same hand to their colleague.