Melissa Leilani Larson has established herself as one of Utah’s most successful playwrights and screenwriters. She has written stage adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion; Little Happy Secrets, a play about a woman at BYU who falls in love with her roommate, and the Mormon-focused films Freetown and Jane and Emma.
Larson’s works have traveled through various settings, time periods and genres, from Victorian drawing room comedies to Latter-day Saint historical dramas to contemporary realism. But for her latest play, Mestiza, or Mixed, which premieres on Thursday, June 9 at Plan-B Theatre, Larson focused on a subject she never tackled so directly—her own life.
The play follows Lark (Joy Asiado), a 30-something aspiring screenwriter living in Utah. Lark has a passion for her art and plenty of interesting ideas, but her life is frustratingly stalled. None of her screenplays have been produced and she is saddled with mounting student loan debt. She has a competitive, fraught relationship with her sister Ava (Jayna Balzer), feels misunderstood by her mother Carrie (April Fossen) and is estranged from her beloved father, who recently separated from her mom. Meanwhile, Lark’s girlfriend Alex (Lily Hye Soo Dixon), a fellow writer whose brazen self-confidence is almost exactly opposite of Lark’s introverted personality, is more undermining than affectionate.
Lark is also a “mestiza,” or a person of mixed Filipinx and European heritage—her mom is white and her dad is a Filipino immigrant. White people often incorrectly guess her race, other people of color don’t see her as part of their community, and even Alex, who is also Asian-American, calls her “the whitest brown girl I know.” Lark describes her own race as a “weird middle place,” and she feels unsure of how, or even if, to claim her own identity.
For Larson, these themes hit close to home. Like her protagonist, Larson is a mixed-race Filipina artist living in Utah, and though Mestiza is not directly autobiographical, she drew from the experiences of herself and her family in the script. Larson says that growing up, it was rare to see multiracial families—especially Flipinx ones—in theater or the media. “I’ve never expected to see myself on stage because of the way my family looks,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Well, why not try?’”
Mestiza is a story rooted in the experiences of a mixed-race Filipinx family—the complex family dynamics, dysfunctional romance and professional setbacks are specifically tied to Lark’s identity, even if the character’s personal struggles will be broadly relatable to audiences of all races. Larson also writes about the professional and creative evolution of an artist trying to turn their craft into a career. “There are times as an artist where you just feel like, ‘Hey, I made something really pretty, but also I’m bad at this. I’m never going to make any money. I’m never going to get to that place where I’m doing this for a job,’” Larsen says.
While writing Mestiza, Larson explored her own vulnerable feelings about race and cultural divides. In one key scene, Lark is chosen as a finalist at a film festival, and a critical online commenter assumes from the black-and-white headshots of the screenwriters that every recipient is white. Larsen based this on an experience she herself had, which party inspired her to write the play. The moment—and the raw conversation with Alex it inspires—illustrates the ways Lark feels invisible.
Lark and Larson both share a self-consciousness about their own race, which leaves them feeling unmoored from their communities. “I’ve struggled with feeling Filipino enough,” she says. This struggle, paradoxically, could make it more difficult for Larson to write about racial identity—and the insecurity surrounding that identity—so directly. While Larson felt plenty of trepidation about writing so personally, she ultimately felt freed by the opportunity to wrestle with these complicated topics through fiction. “I know this is relatable because I can relate to it,” she says.
Mestiza, or Mixed will be at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center from June 9-19 and streaming online from June 15-19. For tickets, visit Plan-B’s website. And while you’re here, subscribe and get six issues of Salt Lake magazine, your guide to the best of life in Utah.