Cyndi Lauper’s voice pierces the darkness with a familiar refrain: “Oh mother dear, we’re not the fortunate ones / And girls, they wanna have fun.” The lights rise on Sara Porkalob in a black retro windbreaker, hair pulled high into a bun, as Lauper’s soaring soprano fades into a haunting whisper. Porkalob’s eyes ignite with an impish flicker. There’s no turning back. She’s in charge.
In “Dragon Mama,” a new one-woman play, Porkalob shares her mother Maria Porkalob Jr.’s story with refreshing veracity and wit, breathing vigorous life into an impressive roster of diverse characters. Deftly fusing comedy and tragedy, Porkalob intensely depicts a young woman’s odyssey to recover her lost adolescence amidst the sonic panorama of the late ’80s.
“Dragon Mama,” which premiered on March 28, supplements the narrative of “Dragon Lady,” Porkalob’s solo cabaret about her grandmother Maria Sr. Both shows run at the Oberon through April 7. The pared-back staging and popular music soundtrack of “Dragon Mama” flourish in the intimate nightclub venue.
Indeed, Maria Jr. consistently listens to hip-hop, techno, and pop to retreat from a confusing, burdensome reality. As the eldest of five siblings living in a trailer park with their single mother, she grows up too quickly and soon becomes a mother herself. In the delivery room, as the doctor places her newborn in her arms, Maria Jr.’s face twists in bewilderment. She says, “I have a daughter? Okay.” Staring into her child’s eyes, she smiles and says, “I’m gonna name you ‘Sara Lee.’ Like the cheesecake.”
Later, as her baby wails and her family literally pounds at the door, her sole recourse is to slip on her headphones, crank up Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” on her Walkman, and fist-pump the world away. Porkalob, glinting with sweat, less impersonates Maria Jr. so much as reaches through the void to touch her.
Eyes closed, stomping her Converse sneakers to the beat, Maria Jr. could be confused for a John Hughes heroine if her brows weren’t so furrowed with pain. In a part of town even John Bender from “The Breakfast Club” would find too rough, Porkalob validates her mother’s experience and diversifies the legacy of the “Brat Pack.” By co-opting their music, aesthetics, and humor, she convincingly affirms Maria Jr.’s participation in their canon.
With no friends and no future, Maria Jr. flees the suburban desolation of Bremerton, Wash., to work on a fishing boat in Anchorage, Alaska. There, where time and space stand still, she mourns the tenderness and human connection absent from her teenage years. Initially shameful and shy, Maria Jr. gradually opens up to others and ventures into an underground realm of queer fantasy.
Subtle gestures – a glance, a smile, an outreached hand – contain multitudes, leading to compassionate lovers and true friends. When guilt-ridden memories of her daughter left behind in Washington interrupt Maria Jr.’s newfound Arcadian bliss, Porkalob sheds earnest tears. For Maria Jr., the tears signify regret. For Porkalob, they insist forgiveness.
Although “Dragon Mama” is entrenched in themes of poverty, Asianness, and queerness, it excels by neither preaching about nor sensationalizing them. Following a heated conversation with her siblings about their absent father, a young Maria Jr. addresses a missionary knocking at the door. She shakes her head at his mention of Jesus and politely says, “He abandoned us too, thanks so much!”
Whereas someone less confident might over-educate or over-explain, Porkalob trusts that her family is easy to love. Baring her secrets and her soul, she challenges others to broaden their conception of normality.
While the show’s stripped-down nature allows Porkalob’s exceptional talent to shine, its minimalism introduces challenges. Without sets, props, or other actors, Porkalob is tethered to a straightforward linear narrative and very thorough exposition. Sometimes it becomes difficult to distinguish between characters, which number up to five in a single conversation, without clearer shifts in location or vocal characterization.
Running at two hours with intermission, the one-woman format grows stale. Due to the sheer amount of material, Porkalob occasionally speaks too fast, speeding through poignant moments that deserve the time to really sink in.
Still, some conflicts noticeably go unresolved. Perhaps Porkalob’s father is Chester, Maria’s high school boyfriend, but perhaps not. Maria Jr.’s romantic feelings toward her flippant playmate Arlene similarly lack closure.
However, the frustration emerging from these unanswered questions is ultimately a gift. Yes, it’s hard not to sympathize with Maria Jr.’s numerous hardships, but deeper down, her story’s ambiguities encourage a more personal, visceral reaction than arises from passive observation.
Society traditionally lauds education and income as harbingers of emotional stability. That being said, the Porkalobs, through their substantial trials, undoubtedly captivate as they engage with the cathartic, the raw, and the real. They remind us how good it feels to feel.