After a long talk with Alex, her girlfriend, Lark seems she can barely stay afloat, wondering if she will ever find success as a filmmaker. She speaks to her absent Filipino father: “It makes sense, Dad. That you wanted to fit in. The westerns are all about this idea of finding a place to belong in a wide open space. You wanted to belong, wanted to disappear into the background like a featured extra in a John Ford film. But Ford would never cast you, would he? Can a person stand out and fit in at the same time? You’re better than Gary Cooper, Dad. You’re just as American as John Ford. You belong here. I think you do, anyway.”
Deep in debt and holding a half dozen completed scripts that have yet to see the green light for becoming a film, Lark cannot believe that her brother, sister, mother and even girlfriend act as if her father is invisible in their lives. As a mixed Filipino female, Lark would like to think that her father did not give up on the American dream. Then why has everyone forgotten about him?
Mestiza, or Mixed, the family drama which centers on Lark’s quest to affirm and accept her identity and heritage personally and professionally, is an outstanding season closer for Plan-B Theatre. Melissa Leilani Larson’s superb play challenges the actors, who are part of the first majority-Filipino theatrical cast in Utah history. But, after a hesitant exposition, the cast finds the emotional groove, which does eminent justice to Larson’s script.
This is first noted in a marvelous scene with Lark (Joy Asiado), and her two siblings, Ava (Jayna Balzer) and Eddie (Carlos Nobleza Posas), who are joined by their mother (April Fossen). The ensemble chemistry makes the family vibe credible. Asiado subtly navigates the dueling channels of self-righteousness and insecurity, trying to be as smooth and assured as possible without exposing the vulnerabilities of her own defense. Balzer plays Ava to Larson’s intended vision of the character, a sister who is three years younger than Lark but who appears to have the elements of her life falling into place in career and at home. With rich sonorities, Posas excels as Eddie, a former professional baseball athlete who left his career because of alcoholism but is now on his way to becoming a pastry chef. Fossen, a favorite of the Plan-B stage who has provided numerous memorable performances, is on point again, as the white mother and university administrator who is the master of unconditional love to the three children.
Meanwhile, none of the family is all that enthused about Lark’s love interest, Alex, who is Asian American, a poet and comes from a well-to-do-family. Lily Hye Soo Dixon nails Alex to every nuance and Asiado responds accordingly in capturing the emotional contours of Lark. In the middle of the play, Alex and Lark have a long dialogue scene, in which Lark defends the premises of the screenplay for a western starring a Spanish Filipino woman (mestiza) who overcomes a terrible marriage and achieves her American dream in California. Jaime, a well-known Filipino filmmaker (a brief role that Posas takes up with finesse as well) is coming to Salt Lake City, and Alex has found a way for Lark to pitch one of her screenplays to him.
There are indicators of arrested development in Lark, who is in her thirties and well educated in a field that prioritizes astute, close observation. She naively believes that Alex, who frequently challenges her on why she seems so lost and uncomfortable about her mixed Filipino heritage, nevertheless still looks out for her interests. But, there also is foreshadowing of one of the play’s major epiphanies that occurs in how the two respond to each other. Lark reacts to every criticism or suggestion from Alex with a self-defensive reflex. But, Alex is nonchalant if Lark throws the barb back to her. Lark runs with her emotions but Alex barely bats an eye.
When the two are discussing privilege, Alex tells Lark that contemporary, not historical stories, matter. “You do have privilege. You can tell stories that are real and now and that mean something,” she adds. Lark disagrees that having an agenda makes a story good or necessary. Alex responds, “You make the story good. The message makes it powerful. Gives it impact. People will notice you, notice your work. They’ll see that you are trying to make a difference.” Lark remains stubborn: “I don’t need an agenda to make a difference.” But, Alex adds, “You need it to be taken seriously.”
This absorbing pace builds a good bit of steam in the second half of the performance. And, then there is the scene with Lark and her mother. Lark was obstinate about not moving into a new place and wasn’t thrilled that her mother was willing to cosign on a mortgage application. Of course, when Carrie, her mother, discovers that Lark is a bad credit risk because of massive student loan debt, it sets off a bitter argument between the two women. It is a brilliantly executed scene. Fossen sits for a few minutes and one can see how she is containing the sort of anger that every child has ever feared when they realize the parents have found out the actual circumstances.
Everything about Mestiza, or Mixed, and the production resonates with laser-like realism. It addresses the questions and implications of the perceptions of Asians as a model minority, the challenges of identity and assimilation and the incidents of hate and violence which target Asians and Asian Americans. There are instances when the characters mention the frustrations of people trying to guess their ethnicity. Eddie, for example, is the subject of hate-driven taunts and threats by neighbors who misidentify him as Mexican and want to drive his new business out of the area. Larson is a gifted writer and her work progressively reminds of the capabilities of one of the great titans of the Utah Enlightenment – the late Eric Samuelsen, whose plays always rung with clear access to their emotional credibility. Jerry Rapier’s direction seals the effect, as the cast demonstrates so memorably.
The run, which ends June 19, is sold out but streaming video on demand options will be available June 15-19, with purchase. For more information, see the Plan-B Theatre website.