Sara Porkalob Exquisitely Embodies Her Feisty Filipina Grandma
by Barry David Horwitz
What if you had a grandma who worked long and hard for her family, worked as a lounge singer in Manila, tried to take care of her children, and was preyed upon by gangsters? Well, Sara Porkalob’s Grandma did all that—and more . . .
With dynamic humor and poise, she tells the story of her Grandma Maria with passion and devotion. Every amazing story reminds us that this woman gave her name, her life, her blood to protect her her five kids. She tries hard to keep her eldest daughter, also named Maria, off the streets in the Philippines—not an easy job for a poor, exploited single mom.
Sara performs on a magnificent stage set under the vast almost heart-shaped, red and orange snake-skin arch. This wonderful stage frame by Randy Wong-Westbrooke sets the mood for a bright red Manila nightclub. The club’s boss-lady manipulates and tricks Maria into singing and servicing the gangsters, businessmen, and U.S. Marines that drop in for a drink and dalliance.
Poor teen-aged Maria falls into the boss’s hands, spending her early life raising her daughter while being exploited at the club. Sara, her granddaughter, absorbs the elder Maria’s tales—because Sara’s mom tells a conflicting story.
Grandma takes Sara aside at her 60th birthday celebration—at the burning red club with the winding red-carpeted staircase. Grandma begins to confide her “true” origins to Sara. Full of jokes and songs, Grandma relives those long-ago, grueling Manila days and nights. She imitates the gangsters who use her for sex, the threats of murder, and the children who cry out for their mother. They all come to life in the finely honed acting and cabaret singing that Sara revives, brilliantly.
In Act Two, we get Maria’s life in Washington State. She moves to the U.S. after marrying a clueless U.S. Marine; but life is not easy after her Marine leaves her after a funny encounter with his condescending mother. Sara’s delightul imitations of Grandma’s five children are stunning and artful.
She channels the voices and movements of little Junior and Charlie as they borrow Boy Scout uniforms and take their wagon to collect “food donations” door to door. The little boys come home with plenty of spam, eggs, and apples—to feed Maria’s other babies. It’s an hilarious and touching moment among many that transport us to a world of want and worry, right here in the U.S.
There’s no shortage of intimacy, jokes, and self-sacrifice in Grandma’s touching stories. Sara idealizes her Grandma, re-telling her shocking stories of sex, seduction, criminals, and male ignorance.
Her show has been running in Washington and New York since 2017, the first of a trilogy of matrilineal memories. Her style, her chanteuse vibrato, her miraculous voice, and comic talents make this a sure-fire HIT! Sara takes us to far away times and places with her voice and her prodigious talents.
Sara does the job of elevating women’s roles and honoring her grandmother Maria Senora with great stagecraft and deeply felt songs. A special treat awaits in Mill Valley. I want to see her again.
“Dragon Lady” –written & performed by Sara Porkalob, directed by Andrew Russell, original & adapted music performed by Hot Damn Scandal, scenic design by Randy Wong-Westbrooke, lighting design by Spense Matubang, sound design by Erin Benarz, by Marin Theatre Company, with Center REP, at Mill Valley, California. Info: marintheatre.org – to December 17, 2023.
Cast: Sara Porkalob (in many voices & songs)
Banner photo: Sara Porkalob on Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s set. Photos: Kevin Berne