Family in the Front Row

MAR 18, 2019

An interview with Diana Oh and Sara Porkalob

Performing in the 2018/19 A.R.T. Breakout Series this spring are Diana Oh and Sara Porkalob. This spring, Diana Oh’s yearlong series of performance installations across Boston culminates in Clairvoyance, a concert celebrating queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) power, while Sara Porkalob returns to OBERON with Dragon Lady and the premiere of Dragon Mama—music-filled one-woman shows following the artist’s grandmother and mother, respectively. Sara and Diana sat down with Kareem Khubchandani, Assistant Professor at Tufts University, to discuss these upcoming works.

Diana, I have seen some of your work, specifically the 10-part {my lingerie play}, in which you stage interventions around questions of consent, sexual violence, queerphobia, and pleasure. One thing I’ve noticed in that performance is that the audience really matters to you—when they’re reading something you’ve written, or when you invite them onstage. What are you planning for audiences here?

Diana Oh: I’m doing monthly installations [including last fall’s Chosen Family Portrait and White People Read, as well as the upcoming and Artist in Their Element (April 20 at the ICA)] that are going to culminate in a concert called Clairvoyance, which is about queer magic and QTPOC power. It’s similar to {my lingerie play} because these installations happen out in the street, and then people are brought into a theater to digest, talk, and do the real thing. Then, maybe, we’ll plant some trees—literally. Being able to have an exchange of love and energy with a single person is magic in itself, but when you can do that in live performance, with as many people as you possibly can, that’s it. That’s my drug. That is what I love to do. I love being a machine for empathy, joy, fun, and spontaneity, and taking people on a pleasure ride—and, also, confronting things when I need to.

Sara, Dragon Lady is the stunning story of your grandmother’s migration to the US from the Philippines, incorporating both her history as a cabaret singer and your own virtuosic singing abilities. That piece uses music to look at how an art form migrates along with trauma, family, and pleasure. I know you’re premiering the sequel, Dragon Mama, alongside Dragon Lady this spring, and I’m wondering if the sequel also takes up questions of family alongside music.

Sara Porkalob: I think that all art forms are modes of cultural documentation—documentation that’s different from history. Here in America, the history that is widely available, the story often taught in public schools, was written by colonizers, people who won the wars, people who want to control the narrative. And those narratives are limited, problematic, and built on a lot of lies. I think that in art, storytelling, and music, we can find different forms of history that are more true.

My family wouldn’t be the same without music—it’s in our bloodstream. In Dragon Lady, we see music as a place where my grandmother could be her full self when she couldn’t be in other ways, even with her family. Dragon Mama builds on that legacy, and in that piece, music is a vehicle for the love story between my two moms. After my mother gave birth to me, she realized that she was queer. And she knew that, as a mother, she didn’t want to make the same choices that my grandmother had to make in the face of survival; she knew that she had to strike her own path. Then she met my other mom, Tina, who is a singer. My mother met Tina as she was singing in the only gay bar in Anchorage, Alaska. Music in Dragon Mama is the vehicle for how these two women express love for each other. The piece focuses on late 80s to 90s hip hop and R&B—music I grew up with. SWV, En Vogue, Boyz II Men; that music has such a strong place of power in my heart, and I feel the politics of the music from that time very deeply, in my bones.

When I started seventh grade, we had an “initiation,” and I had to lip sync “End of the Road.” It was supposed to be humiliating, but that’s how I fell in love with Boyz II Men. [Laughter] Diana, you work with music as well. Who are your musical inspirations? Who are you drawing on?

DO: When people ask me, “What kind of music do you write?” I’m always like, “It’s soulful.” It comes from this lower place, this gut space. It literally feels like it comes up through my vagina, and then it arrives. I am always unpacking where I get my voice from, because sometimes it surprises me. My dad always used to sing opera, and my parents were always forcing my siblings and me to sing with each other. I guess that’s where I developed my sound, at parties singing to my Korean parents. I’m really grateful for them. It takes some really brave immigrant parents to be the parents to artists.

SP: Amen.

DO: I’m also really inspired by my social scene, my nights out dancing and partying. I mean, that’s our savior place. That’s the pulse, that’s what keeps us alive, that is our beating heart. And in terms of who I’m drawing on, I grew up hearing the voices of Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Ella Fitzgerald. And yes, Boyz II Men and En Vogue. So, if you’re reading this, come to our stuff, Boyz II Men! Come check it out at OBERON.

I’m wondering how much Asian American performance is actually indebted to Black sound, aesthetics, and music? There’s this sharing of aesthetic practices across Black and Asian communities: I think about Paris is Burning and the use of fans, pharaonic sculptures, martial arts movements, and the House of Ninja. In debates about appropriation, it’s often White/Other appropriation, but how do you think about Black/Asian borrowings, crossings, and sharings?

SP: My other mom, Tina, she’s Black. Having her as my mom from the age of four, I was proximal to Black culture. It felt like it was mine, when I was young. I knew that I wasn’t Black, but I felt that I had access to Black expression and art forms. It was only in college I realized that though I was close to those forms, having a Black parent was not a signed permission form to access blackness. No matter what I did, I was not Black myself.

In that acknowledgement, I could hold a deep appreciation and respect for the historical importance of what Black cultural forms such as music, art, and dance have contributed to American culture. You can trace the roots of hip hop and jazz back to the African diaspora.

It’s possible to engage those art forms in a true, equitable, and deeply loving relationship, but there’s also a space that you can’t traverse.

It’s also important to bear in mind that, with respect to those links, there’s often not enough credit given where credit is due. When I say credit, I don’t only mean acknowledgement. If capitalism is the spine of our American society and is the system which perpetuates all different types of inequities, then we have people who are developing these art forms who are not then benefitting from the system.

DO: I’d also add that I think traditional Asian forms are a source of inspiration that we aren’t studying thoroughly enough. I’m thinking about Korean shamanism, about specific types of Korean singing that happens at funerals and parades—there’s an entire tradition there that I’m so ignorant of, and so interested in engaging with. I wonder if these forms are in our bones, in our bodies, but we don’t know it, because we didn’t grow up with stories from these cultures.

I think it’s important, too, to acknowledge that we don’t develop our aesthetics alone—we do that in community. You’re both very intentional about what you want to give to the world, and that community engagement is the performance for you. How do you think about the demographics of your audience? Do you craft performances with particular audiences in mind?

SP: When I first started making work, I realized I was unconsciously centering how I thought white people were going to perceive this play, and I was unconsciously tailoring what I was doing to mitigate that, feed into that, or to come up against it. I don’t do that anymore. Now, I think about the community that I’m creating it for, my family—and my family is wild and diverse. I realized that where I came from is rich and rife with possibility, and that there is a need to share those narratives. In my performance, when people ask, “How do you play thirty-two characters?,” I say “Practice.” Then they ask, “But how do you become those people?” and I say, “Because I know them.”

DO: There’s something about creating an audience that makes you feel courageous. I know the difference between when I perform for a predominantly white audience versus a predominantly not-white audience. It just feels better when I have my community in the front row. That’s not to say non-community members are not invited, but there’s something about having your family there who love you, and who you love back.

You are both incredible. I’ll be in the front row for both of your shows.

Interview by Kareem Khubchandani, Mellon Bridge Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies and the Program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Tufts University. Kareem is also a performance artist, working in drag, storytelling, and digital media. You can follow the adventures of his drag persona LaWhore Vagistan on instagram: @lawhorevagistan.

Sara Porkalob, Diana Oh, and Kareem Khubchandani in conversation
Sara Porkalob, Kareem Khubchandani, and Diana Oh: Johnathan Carr.

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