“An agenda doesn’t make a story good. Or necessary.”
This line of dialogue, an illuminating moment in a debate about racial identity and representation, could be the mission statement of Melissa Leilani Larson’s new play Mestiza, or Mixed at Plan-B Theatre. Or, more accurately, it’s a statement about what Larson does not want her play to be, one that risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mestiza may not necessarily have an agenda, but the play does address, in blunt and occasionally pedantic terms, the challenges of life as a mixed-race person in America—the three siblings at the center of the play are, like Larson, part of a multiracial Filipinx family. While it’s always refreshing to see an underrepresented community on stage, Larson’s play also succeeds as an engaging character-based drama.
Lark (Joy Asiado), an aspiring screenwriter living in Salt Lake City, is practically a walking, talking millennial cautionary tale. She has massive student loan debt she can’t pay, a pile of unproduced screenplays and a dead-end relationship with her casually dismissive girlfriend Alex (Lily Hye Soo Dixon). After a landlord sells the house she’s renting, Lark prepares to move in with her loving but overbearing mom Carrie (April Fossen), who is struggling to cope with the recent separation from her husband. Lark’s brother Eddie (Carlos Nobleza Posas) is rebuilding his life as a bakery owner after a failed professional baseball career and a stint in rehab, while Ava (Jayna Balzer), Lark’s girlboss younger sister, has the financial independence and stable adult life Lark lacks.
Larson’s script is quiet and naturalistic, focused on the daily indignities of Lark’s life as a working artist and the everyday racism her family faces. A lot of time, arguably too much, is spent on money problems and financial stress, though anyone trying to find housing in Salt Lake with an average person’s budget will certainly relate to Lark’s woes. Larson’s depiction of an artist’s life is refreshingly realistic—Lark has a clear passion for filmmaking, but the play is more interested in the mundane details of making industry connections and trying to pay the bills than her creative process.
Lark contains plenty of contradictions—she can be petty and thoughtful, selfish and self-flagellating, frustratingly passive in her personal life but fiercely protective of her work. Asiado, currently a college student at BYU, isn’t always convincing as the 30-something Lark, and she sometimes seems tentative to fully tackle the range of the character’s emotions. Alex, Lark’s superficially woke but ultimately cruel girlfriend, is an interesting character on paper, but the relationship is less compelling on stage. The chemistry between Asiado and Dixon never quite coheres, which makes it difficult to connect with the couple’s obviously doomed relationship.
Asiado, and the entire cast, is strongest working as an ensemble, and the most effective moments of the play center on the family’s tense but ultimately loving relationship. Posas anchors a heartbreaking scene in the aftermath of a racist attack, while Fossen is particularly lovely as a mother fighting to connect with her daughter. Some of the character’s backstories—Eddie’s addiction or Ava’s struggles with fertility—are frustratingly underexplored, but for the most part, Larson and the cast stay focused on tightly observed, lived-in details. With fluid direction by Jerry Rapier, the play succeeds as a family drama centered on characters both relatable and specific.
One of those specificities is, of course, the characters’ race. Larson’s exploration of Filipnx identity is an integral part of the play, which succeeds both because Larson has an honest, interesting perspective about life as a mixed-race person and because viewpoints like hers are so rarely seen onstage. (You’ve probably seen plenty of narratives about starving artists, but rest assured you haven’t seen one about a Filipina woman in Utah trying to make a Western.) Lark definitely isn’t white—she’s been subjected to racism since childhood—but she also feels disconnected from her Filipina identity and other people of color. She doesn’t speak Tagalog, was born in the U.S., and sometimes hesitates to call herself Filipina. Alex, who is Asian-American but not Filipina, accuses her of selectively, and opportunistically, claiming her own race. Shrewdly, Larson doesn’t provide Lark with any neatly wrapped-up epiphanies or the audience with easy answers.
Larson’s ability to explore larger ideas within the play’s modestly scaled drama makes Mestiza worthwhile despite some missteps. For Lark and her family, the existential questions of belonging, identity and family exist alongside the everyday struggle to pay the bills, find a decent partner and, hopefully, write the next great American Western. In Mestiza, Larson portrays both of these threads with thoughtfulness and care.
Mestiza, or Mixed will be at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center through June 19 and streaming online from June 15-19. For more information, visit Plan B Theatre’s website.