Utahn’s new play explores family and her Filipina identity

Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson’s “Mestiza, or Mixed” runs June 9-19 at Plan-B Theatre.

(Sharah Meservy | Plan-B Theatre) From left: Jayna Balzer, Carlos Nobleza Posas, April Fossen and Joy Asiado, in a scene from Melissa Leilani Larsons's play "Mestiza, or Mixed," playing June 9-19, 2022, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City, produced by Plan-B Theatre.

Utah playwright Melissa Leilani Larson has always felt like her mixed-race identity — Filipina from her mother, white from her father — has “always been confusing to people.”

It took an incident in early summer 2020 that prompted her into writing about it.

Larson had sent a play to an East coast theater company that was holding a women’s voice festival, staging readings of new plays. The company created a graphic that featured all the playwrights who were accepted, with a black-and-white filter on the headshots.

A Black actor, who had previously worked at the company, complained on social media that the festival programmers had not picked any Black women as playwrights. Larson recalled that the actor specifically complained how angry he was that five “white women” had been chosen.

Larson said she remembers that in the post — since deleted — the actor said he saw the chosen women as “lighter-skinned women of color, who were enjoying the privilege other women of color did not.”

“I didn’t know what to do with that,” Larson said. “I’m a Brown person. I have white people in my family, but I’ve never been mistaken for white. It really took me aback.”

She told all this to Jerry Rapier, the artistic director of Plan-B Theatre, and he half-jokingly told her she had to write about it. The result is “Mestiza, or Mixed,” a play whose title refers to the Tagalog word for someone who is half-Filipino.

“The other thing that spurred the creation of this play is that a lot of my life has been people looking at me from afar and kind of guessing at what I am,” Larson said. “People guess everything except Asian,” she said of her identity, “which is what I am.”

With the play, she said, she’s finally getting the chance to explore her mixed heritage in a therapeutic way, while sharing it with others.

Anti-Asian sentiments and identity

Set in present-day Salt Lake City, the play’s protagonist is Lark Timon, who experiences a career-changing moment that has her dealing with questions of her own identity as a queer mestiza.

“There are some personal experiences I have dealt with that are in the show,” Larson said.

Lark’s family is like Larson’s family, she said, but they aren’t her family.

“You have to force your characters to deal with things,” she said. “Both as a theater maker and as an audience member, seeing those characters deal with those questions: It does help me to figure out those questions in my life. Writing this play has put me in a better place as far as my identity.”

Larson tried to write something about her identity when she was in grad school, but she said it never worked out. “I didn’t really understand what the weight of that was for me personally,” she said. “It hit me a lot harder to be doing it now.”

By “now,” she refers to how the number of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans have skyrocketed, during the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s a hate crime incident in “Mestiza, or Mixed,” — and a week after the production’s first table read, the Filipino-owned Yum Yum food truck was vandalized with anti-Asian graffiti in Layton.

“One of the tricky things about writing is that when you try to make something that’s real, you put a lot of yourself into the show,” she said. “I wanted to put a hate crime in the show because I thought it was important to say that this family is being attacked for existing.”

First majority Filipino-cast production in Utah

“Mestiza” will be the first production in Utah to have a majority Filipino American cast, and it’s meaningful for all involved.

Carlos Nobleza Posas, who plays the characters of Eddie and Jaime, moved to Utah in 2016, and “this is the first time I’ve seen my heritage and culture, the American-Filipino hybrid, on stage. It touches me every night that we rehearse.”

Rapier, who is directing the production, said that “there’s been a lot of strides made in terms of Latino and Black representation on American stage. [But] Asian representation is way behind and the acceptable homogeneity of Asian-ness, rather than being specific, is something that is prevalent.”

Larson pointed to the popularity of “Crazy Rich Asians” and how rewarding it was to see an entire Asian cast, but there were only two Filipinos. In “Mestiza,” there are three Filipino actors, one Korean and one white actor.

“I see Filipino bodies on camera,” said Joy Asiado, who plays Lark. “But never as Filipinos.” She cites actresses such as Vanessa Hudgens and Shay Mitchell (whose mothers are each Filipina), who often play racially ambiguous roles. That’s what makes “Mestiza” so special for her.

Kimi Handa Brown, the intimacy director, said that too often in pop culture, Asians are represented as a monolith — and it’s assumed that everyone has the same experience.

Jayna Balzer, who plays Ava, said they’ve often heard that Filipinos are the forgotten Asians, which makes them sad. “We’re here,” they said, and the production showcases that.

In Larson’s piece, they also find a sense of comfort: Being able to exist in the liminal space between identities of being mixed, said costume designer Aaron Asano Swenson.

It was a relief for Larson, too, because a question she asked herself while writing was, “Am I Filipino enough, Asian enough, to be writing about what I’m writing about?” To her, having her cast say, “‘Yes, it is Filipino enough,’” was both rewarding and liberating.

“With the shift in the last two years, the best way to ensure that folks like us are represented on stage is simply to take the reins and create that representation ourselves,” Rapier said about his collaboration with Larsen. “Anyone who says they cannot cast roles that were written for people of color simply need to expand the circles that they run in.”

Larsen said she hopes audiences take away one message: “This family could be your neighbors, they could live down the street from you in Millcreek, Sugarhouse or in Taylorsville. They look different than you, but there are things that you share in common. Mixed-race families are prevalent.”

“Mestiza, or Mixed” caps off Plan-B’s 31st season and will be shown in person at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center from June 9-19, and streaming from June 15-19. Tickets are $25 each, for shows on June 17, 18 and 19; the rest of the run is sold out. Seating is at limited capacity with social distancing; audience members are required by Plan-B to wear an N95 or KN95 mask for the full length of their visit to the Rose Wagner, and must have proof of vaccination (including the first booster) against COVID-19.