Sara Porkalob vs 1776: Is it ok to criticize the show you’re in?

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 as Edward Rutledge singing “Molasses or Rum” in the 2022 Broadway revival of 1776

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.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

6 thoughts on “Sara Porkalob vs 1776: Is it ok to criticize the show you’re in?

  1. A friend knows her. He said that she was intelligent and talented, but not nearly as talented as she seemed to think she was. He also said that she was exhausting. Ms. Porkalob, everyone is replaceable. I wouldn’t be surprised if management put on her cover for the rest of the run and delegated her to her dressing room. I know I would.

  2. My hope is that everyone will calm down a little bit – we are all so reactionary now and pissed off about everything that causes us discomfort – myself included.
    Much of what Sara said is true regarding BIPOC and stories with and about them, and the theater world right now.
    The musical/story itself IS old and it is odd that of all the body of work out there, this is what was chosen.
    Sara’s hubris is off-putting, sure, yet imagine having to always combat being put in back of white people, and told to be quiet, among many other disrespectful actions. She’s young. Very smart and talented, but young and will understand in time that a little grace with her truth goes a long way.
    Let her be – she has so much yet to offer. Let’s focus on her honesty about how to be more intelligent with intersectionality and equity – I personally have much to learn and happy to focus on that.

  3. Of course it’s “ok” to criticize the show you’re in but it isn’t very smart. And it’s really beside the point. Her two big “wants” out of this show, as stated are: 1. A good agent and 2. social media following.
    I think she’ll get #2 but she’s poisoning the well for #1. Having said that, I just want to add that, although I support her RIGHT to free speech, she still strikes me as an incredibly arrogant and entitled actor! She appears to be back-pedaling already. Now she’s “clarifying” that her, “I give 75%” comment actually meant she takes time out for eating, “pooping,” etc. I’m guessing she’s feeling pressured and I hope she feels like an ASS for saying that she only gives 75% on some shows. The audience paid 100% of the ticket price to see her so, IMHO, she should be fired for theft! As one that has produced many Equity plays, I can’t imagine a good producer wanting to cast her after reading that 75% statement. If she actually thinks a show is beneath her, she should have the courage of her convictions and not do the show. To give 75% is disgusting.

  4. She’s talented and she knows it. During her time in theater circles in Seattle, she crafted a personal brand and narrative focused on BIPOC issues which is to be commended – but have seen her weaponize it for personal gain. The 1776 drama is not surprising. Throw the show under a bus, make overtures about race, build a brand and gain some Insta followers and hopefully get an agent.

  5. I know Sara and I know her work. I’m in the Seattle theater community and I think the vast majority of us here are thrilled with her success, and supportive of her perspective on theater as labor.

    I’m a sixtysomething white man. When Sara Porkalob talks, if what she says challenges the world I know, I lean in and listen.

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