By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Sara Porkalob’s autobiographical solo show “Dragon Lady” begins in a basement, in darkness. A hissing sound, like a dragon or maybe just a heavy smoker struggling for air, shoots out through the playhouse air. Lights come up.
Over the next 90 minutes, the set, courtesy of designer Jennifer Zeyl, never changes. It’s a furnished basement, a higher level and a lower level, one simple bed, a few chairs, and a staircase. It looks realistic enough, but the real journeys of the play take place in the performer’s mind, manifested through her body, her words, and her knockout-punch of a voice. She’ll take the audience halfway around the world, and back generations, through Filipino and American culture, through degradation, abuse, neglect, survival, and the inspiration necessary for that survival.
But never without humor. Porkalob, working from her own family history, knows she’s hilarious, just as she knows that any family history looks hilarious, awful, or both, depending on the storyteller’s vantage point. She rarely tells from the stage, though. She becomes her own grandmother, her own mother, her own uncles and aunts — to render them as children, victimized by those more powerful, but determined, generation by generation, to find a way. Her people despair. But they don’t quit. And they often find colorful solutions to strife, even if that means bending a few laws.
Playing her own grandmother, grown, Porkalob affirms the Filipino affinity with karaoke singing and home karaoke machines. She breaks into song over and over again, displaying power, punch, a wide, emotive vibrato, and seemingly inexhaustible passion. The songs take the grandmother, and the other family Porkalob plays, through what they must endure. The three-piece band, mostly hidden from view, backs her up adroitly, although trombonist classic Jimmy Austin sometimes overwhelms guitarist Pete Irving and bassist Mickey Stylin. The original songs Irving wrote don’t quite stand up against the classic songs interspersed, but then again, those songs set a high standard.
I’ve referred to “Dragon Lady” as a solo show. On the night I went, however, this was not quite true. An elderly lady emerged, towards the end, carrying a guitar. This proved to be Porkalob’s actual grandmother, the fierce Dragon Lady herself, now white-haired and creased, but smiling.
Porkalob, after all her own singing, asked her grandmother for a song. And the grandmother said that would be fine. The old lady sat down quietly and fingering her guitar, gave a short, sweet song with a funny ending.
I am not sure, from my program and promotional materials, whether the grandmother will remain a fixture in this show. Bringing her out, though, did render a final subtle twist, a touch of something which the rest of the show, for all of its sweaty, hearty comedy and tragedy, didn’t quite catch. The Dragon Lady wore Porkalob’s face, as the granddaughter took the older woman through all the perils of life. Then, for a few offhanded minutes, she got to wear her own. Everything we’d learned, and felt, settled on that face.
“Dragon Lady” plays through Oct. 1 at the Jones Playhouse, 4045 University Way N.E. in Seattle. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit intiman.org/dragon-lady.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.