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Based on a True Story – ish

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by Melissa Leilani Larson

I’ve come to realize audiences enjoy finding out that the play they’ve just seen is based on a true story. I don’t think I can count the number of times people have come up to me after one of my plays and asked, “Is this play about you?” I always reply with a firm “No.”

When it comes to my new piece Mestiza, or Mixed, premiering at Plan-B Theatre, people will ask the same question. So pardon me while I modify my answer slightly:

AUDIENCE: Is this play about you?

MEL: …ish.

When I first started writing plays, I made a conscious choice to not write about myself. I didn’t think I was interesting enough. I didn’t trust myself to write contemporary dialogue. And to be completely honest, I didn’t think I could find an actor who could be me.

I identify as a mixed-race Filipina American. My mother came to the U.S. in the 1970s. I was born in Hawai’i, and my family lived there until the summer before I turned thirteen. I was a skinny, awkward girl with straight, thick hair and a dark brown complexion. In Hawai’i, I was just one brown kid in a crowd of Asians and Pacific Islanders. I was just one of many kids whose heritage was mixed. It was never a subject of contention or even of discussion.

I never questioned my mother’s heritage or my parents’ marriage. My parents belonged together, and I belonged to them. My mom is still our family’s reigning Scrabble champ, switching effortlessly between Tagalog and English. One night’s dinner would be spaghetti; the next night, tortang talong (an eggplant and ground pork omelet). My maternal grandmother taught me to make perfect rice without a measuring cup; my paternal grandmother taught me to make grilled cheese sandwiches. All of this was normal and beautiful. It was home.

Moving to Utah was a serious culture shock: Brown-ness was no longer the majority, and eighth grade was like getting dropped into the deep end of awkwardness and loneliness. I listened to different music. I wore weird clothes. Did I belong here? Did I have a choice?

Sometime in middle school is when I became completely obsessed with movies and the idea of someday making movies. I watched so many movies that I started to notice things about them that I didn’t love. I didn’t see people like me on screen; I didn’t see families that looked like mine. When I did see Asian families on screen, they were rarely Filipino or mixed. Never both.

This play is the first ever produced in this state with roles written for and filled by a majority Filipinx cast. It is purposefully about a mixed-race family. Here I am, a meh playwright and screenwriter in her 40s who has finally figured out how to see myself on stage. I have to swallow my fear and put myself in the nooks and crannies, slipping like seawater in the spaces between words.

This play is about a queer woman embracing her identity in the wake of her father’s unexpected departure. It’s running during Pride Month; it overlaps with Philippine Independence Day; it closes on Father’s Day. We did not go into the project with any of that planned. Is it coincidental? Possibly. But it’s also poetic and appropriate.

Mestiza, or Mixed tells the story of a mixed-race Filipina filmmaker struggling to see herself in the world.

Well, when you say it like that— OK, then. Maybe this play is about me.

Melissa Leilani Larson’s plays THE POST OFFICE, THE EDIBLE COMPLEX, and PILOT PROGRAM previously premiered at Plan-B Theatre. Her latest, MESTIZA, OR MIXED, premieres in-person June 9–19 (streaming June 15–19). Tickets, details, and COVID-19 protocols at planbtheatre.org

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