Sara Porkalob, who is making her Broadway debut portraying Edward Rutledge, the pro-slavery representative from South Carolina, in the gender-reversed Broadway revival of “1776,” gave an interview to New York Magazine posted on Vulture Friday that has provoked some strong reactions, and brought to the fore some intriguing disagreements about the rights and responsibilities of a cast member on and off the stage.
Sara Porkalob (who uses both she and they as her pronoun) is a Seattle-based writer, director and performer who is best known for “Dragon Cycle,” a trilogy of plays about her Filipino-American family. (Seattle critic Misa Berson, reviewing her first play in the trilogy in 2017, “Dragon Lady,” called it a “commanding, irresistible one-actor family memoir” and its author a “powerhouse,” and two years later Berson wrote an article with the headline: .“Sara Parkalob rules Seattle theater with dragons, raves and nightclub glamor” .)
It was because of “Dragon Lady” that co-director Diane Paulus cast Porkalob in “1776,” according to Porkalob’s interview with Vulture’s Jason P. Frank: “Diane saw me in Dragon Lady, loved me, said, ‘I’m doing this revival. What do you think?’ I said I wanted to be Edward Rutledge and she said, ‘Cool.'”
Much of Porkalob’s interview with Frank is not controversial. She talks about her approach to her role in “1776” and the song she sings “Molasses to Rum.” She tells Frank she likes the people with whom she works, front-of-the-house staff as much as castmates, and thinks the performers are talented (“…they cast the best people for the roles.”) She thinks it a good thing all of them are being paid well and getting exposure, and that the audience is being asked “to consider how our country was founded without the consideration of people like our cast in mind.”
But she also says: “To me, the play is a relic. It is a dusty, old thing.” And she criticizes a series of specific choices by directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, labeling some of them “cringey. On the inside, I’m cringing… I’m like, It’s okay. I wouldn’t have wanted it this way, but I am doing my job.” But she makes clear she doesn’t enjoy having to defer to their direction (“It’s horrible. I hate it… What I want to do with my time is make new works with collaborators.”) She also says “there was harm done” during the rehearsal process, detailing the use of affinity groups that “unconsciously held up a false narrative by assimilating non-Black POC folks into whiteness.”
Porkalob says she took the job for the salary and as a career move, but doesn’t find it artistically fulfilling. “I feel like I’m going to work.” Frank asks her: “What do you hope you get out of being in 1776 on Broadway?”
She replies: “A Tony nomination, good reviews, and a smart, personable, hard-working agency that’s ready to rep me. Also, I guess more Instagram followers and more community here in New York. I don’t want just a career. I could make a career just being in commercial Broadway musicals….But I don’t want that to be my life.”
The line that some find the most triggering is her comment that she is giving “75 percent” to “1776” — and would do the same if she were cast to perform in “Six” the musical: “At the end of the day, if I’m compromising my desire to do my own work, but the resources are there, it really just comes down to labor. If I’m compromising, I’d better be getting paid a lot more money, honey. I have to ask, ‘Do I want to give 100 percent of myself to this?’And for Six? No! They’re gonna get 75 percent, but that 75 percent will be great.”
The voluminous reaction to Porkalob and her interview falls into two general camps, extrapolating from the comments below the article itself and on social media.
One group finds the interview “refreshingly honest and intelligent,” and that Porkalob herself is “an astonishing writer/director/producer/actor who has fought and triumphed against all odds. Her own work is so much more original, funny, heartbreaking, and powerful than this show.”
The other group finds her rude, self-involved and ungrateful.
“Can you imagine a universe where denigrating the director of your show, proudly admitting that you’re half-assing your performance, and then somehow trying to claim that you’re simultaneously a great and serious artist but also that you don’t respect the show or production you’re in and are only doing it for the money…is seen as heroic and impressive?”
The day after the interview was posted, the co-director of “1776” Jeffrey Page posted the following on his Facebook page:
“Dear nameless person, I know that you feel good about that thing you said…I didn’t feel good about it. I know you feel like it is now your time in the sun. You ain’t put in the time and you ain’t done the work. You are ungrateful and unwise.
You claim that you want to dismantle white supremacist ideology…I think that you are the very example of the thing that you claim to be most interested in dismantling.
“You are fake-woke, rotten to the core, and stuck in the matrix; I hope that you get that increased IG following that you so desperately thirst.” (Update: As of Sunday night, Page took down the post.)
Porkalob has not responded publicly to her director, but she has been adamantly defending herself *
(For what it’s worth, my review of 1776 didn’t explicitly assess her performance, which didn’t make as much of an impression on me as some of the other performances in this large cast, and I found that the staging of her song “Molasses to Rum” gave me the most pause.)
Updates Tuesday, October 18:
An article about the controversy posted tonight by the New York Times quotes an apologetic email that it says Porkalob sent to the “show’s company” in which she writes she is “reaching out in an attempt to repair harm I’ve caused…I see how my opinions and the tone of the article have hurt, offended and upset some of the folks internal to this process. I’m sorry for that.”
In my article above, when I posted it Sunday at noon, I added to the sentence where I talk about Porkalob adamantly defending herself the parenthetical remark “(including apparently pseudonymously in the article’s comments.)” This was a reference to a commenter calling themselves sarshad, who was so persistent, detailed and frankly belligerent in defense of Sara Porkalob that a number of the fellow commenters expressed the suspicion that it was Porkalob herself.
Tonight I received an email from someone named Sameer Arshad, who identified himself as a ” theatre-geek and playwright based in Tacoma, WA,” and said that he was the Vulture commenter who called himself sarshad. He said “I am a real person,” gave me links to his Facebook page and his Instagram account, and he added: “If you use hateration in toxic comment threads as sources for truth for your blog, it reflects poorly on you.” — which does sound like something “sarshad” would write.