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'Dragon Mama' an Intimate, Fierce Unveiling of the Human Experience

by Cassiopeia Guthrie, Sept. 25, 2023

Breathtakingly intimate and yet fierce, Diversionary’s newest production, Dragon Mama, is a stunning portrait of one family’s trials, tribulations, and triumphs. The show, now extended, runs through October 15 on the Diversionary mainstage.

Sara looks upward pensively, red and blue lights behind her.
Sara Porkalob in Dragon Mama. Photo by Talon Reed Cooper.

Part of a trilogy of matrilineal musicals crafted by Sara Porkalob highlighting three generations of Filipino American women in her family (grandmother, mother, and herself), Dragon Mama, the second piece, is the story of Sara’s mother, Maria. Told over the course of 25 years, the solo play follows Maria from her childhood in Honolulu through her formative years in Washington and to her eventual home in Anchorage. It highlights her family’s struggle with an absentee father and what it was like watching her immigrant mother carry multiple jobs and a lifetime worth of disappointment. It tells of a forced early adulthood caring for four young siblings, and the way that her intersectionality as a queer, poor, brown immigrant impacts her walk in the world and who she becomes.

Sara cheers in a moment of bliss.
Sara Porkalob in Dragon Mama. Photo by Talon Reed Cooper.

While the tale being told is compelling, it is made more so by the way that deliberately doled out plot details are woven in one by one, awakening unsurfaced traumas as - and not before - the information is needed. This care and intentionality not only allows the audience to live the story alongside Maria, but also creates a space where they can begin to feel what she feels.

This connection is then exploited, in grand fashion, by a masterclass in character study. Though Porkalob plays Maria and all other characters in the show, there is never a moment when it is unclear who is speaking; her accents and affects are flawless and clear, and minute movements in her face, body, and hands deftly build each individual in a way that allows the audience to see them and begin to understand their motivations. Whether twisting her necklace for Arlene, gripping backpack straps as Sara Lee, flicking ashes away from the tip of her cigarette as Maria, or carrying the confidence of a weightlifting sailor, the effect is immediate and complete. Even when tears appear in one moment, her face transforms to something completely different in the next. It is nearly impossible to describe the nuance of these characterizations, but they are stunning; Porkalob's story is heart wrenching, but her retelling of it is exquisite.

The technical team, likewise, has done an outstanding job with this production. Yi-Chien Lee’s set, a simple platform surrounded by a slick black floor, is simple and effectively used by director Andrew Russell, whose blocked upstage turns allow for quick, efficient changes of location and time, with lighting changes (Annelise Salazar) kicking in exactly at the midpoint.

Sara sits on a chair midstage, bathed in a blue light.
Sara Porkalob in Dragon Mama. Photo by Talon Reed Cooper.

Of particular note is the sound design for this show by Erin Bednarz (sound designer) and Eliza Vedar (associate sound designer). They have Porkalob’s incredible acting range to contend with and yet have manifested a lush soundscape with tight cues that change on a dime. There are birds, playground sounds, water, wind, road noise, and a walkman playing 90s R&B tunes that is not only mimed into believability, but adjusts as you’d expect as well.

I entered the theatre curious and left the theatre transformed; this is a show that cuts to the very core of what it means to be human and dances through the complexity that is the lived experience of our neighbors, mothers, and daughters. Bottom line: it's a must see during its finite San Diego run.

Dragon Mama runs through October 15 at Diversionary Theatre.


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