molasses to rum

1776’s Sara Porkalob Has Some Notes

The actress behind the musical’s most explosive number on bringing a “dusty, old thing” to Broadway and the mistakes made along the way. Photo: Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made

The current Broadway revival of 1776 is a ticking time bomb. Edward Rutledge, the pro-slavery South Carolina representative and the youngest signatory of the Declaration of Independence, spends much of the musical smiling — steady in his anti-revolutionary politics but ready to uncover a deep well of greed, anger, and racism when needed to shape America into the country he wants it to be. Then, 20 minutes before the show ends, the bomb explodes with Rutledge’s “Molasses to Rum.” “Molasses to Rum,” a song decrying a potential anti-slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence, calls out the hypocrisy of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and the rest of the North, who advocated for the anti-slavery clause while drinking rum made via slave labor, profiting off of slave ships, and raping enslaved women, who end up having children also put on the block. By the time the song is over the audience is left with two things: a distaste for America’s Founding Fathers and the knowledge that they’ve just witnessed a star being born.

The star is Sara Porkalob, previously best known for her Dragon Cycle trilogy of solo-performed musicals exploring her family history. In 1776, Porkalob, who uses she/they pronouns, plays Rutledge, a man. In fact, the entire production — which began its life at the American Repertory Theater in Boston before being produced on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company — has cast women and nonbinary people of various races to play the Founding Fathers. The casting strategy’s goal: to remind the audience of the faces that were not considered during the Declaration of Independence’s writing. Directed by Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page, this blunt mission is occasionally mired by staging decisions that unintentionally recall classic American historicizing, something Porkalob — a multi-hyphenate used to directing, starring in, and writing her own shows — is ready to admit. “To me, the play is a relic,” she says. “I admire Jeffrey and Diane for taking this on as directors. I wouldn’t have.”

Would you describe 1776’s casting as color-blind?
My role came to me very uniquely. Diane saw me in Dragon Lady, loved me, said, “I’m doing this revival. What do you think?” I said I wanted to be Edward Rutledge and she said, “Cool.” So I guess my role was color-blind. The casting was a color-conscious puzzle. I think it was a very deliberate choice from the creative team to cast our John Adams as a Black woman. But nobody sat down on the creative team and said, “We’re gonna look at everybody’s intersectional identity and think how it explicitly interacts with this character who has ten lines.” They said, “We want to have a diverse cast. We definitely want enough Black folks, we want people who are non-Black POC folks, we gotta have some white folks.”

I also think that they cast the best people for the roles.

What do you think is the effect of that casting?
The casting is providing resources. The resources include a weekly salary, but also exposure for actors who traditionally would not be cast in this show. In terms of visibility, it is showing our audiences all of these faces that wouldn’t typically be seen. It’s also inviting our audiences to consider how our country was founded without the consideration of people like our cast in mind. Those are the three things I think it’s doing successfully. After that it gets a little complicated … a lot complicated, I should say.

What do you mean?
1776 was written in the 1960s by two dudes. It won the Best Musical Tony over Hair. When it was written, during the Vietnam War, there was a generation of people who had bought into the American Dream, and part of the American dream was fighting for democracy. Then there was this generation after them that thought, Maybe we are sending our young men off to die for no reason. So it’s funny to look at 1776 and Hair as two very different musicals written at the same time, but in response to the same thing. 1776 has this desire to humanize the Founding Fathers and feels like a call back to nostalgic Americana. It’s like, Look at these good ole boys. They were just guys doing this stuff. To me, the play is a relic. It is a dusty, old thing.

Your song “Molasses to Rum” doesn’t feel like a relic. It’s critiquing Northern complicity, something we still don’t hear a lot. Does it feel alive?
Act Two has two numbers in it that remind me why we’re doing this play: “Momma Look Sharp” and “Molasses to Rum.” They feel very alive to me, and the directors have said that the reason they’re doing this play is because of “Molasses to Rum.” That song packs not only the political punch that it’s always had, but today rings truer — probably the most true of all the numbers.

Then there is “The Egg,” which presents all these great moments of American history that happened after the events of the show by projecting scenes from them during the song. It did throw me off given that your production seems to be critiquing American exceptionalism. What do you think of that number?
I think the directors missed a very obvious opportunity with that song to point back at American history in the way they said they wanted to. What we see in the projection is a collage of America’s history of protest, but do you know what it was sorely missing? The protests that were happening on Capitol Hill in January. Those people were literally chanting “1776.” It’s a choice. I would have been like, Let’s have this be a rock-out fucking song while we show those images of white supremacists charging Capitol Hill.

How does it feel to be in the back seat of decision making?
It’s horrible. I hate it. I’m privileged that Diane Paulus came to me through the Dragon Cycle. She and Jeffrey had a lot of respect for me as a collaborator, not just as an actor. When it came to contributing in the room, people would stop and listen to me, which is fantastic. But it’s hard because I’m not the director. If I don’t agree with something, I have to say, Oh, not today. What I want to do with my time is make new works with collaborators.

So is 1776 a career move?
Yes. I told myself when I graduated in 2012 from undergrad that when the time came to move to New York, it would be on my own terms. The first choice would be to move here by introducing my original work. I’m living the second-best choice, which is coming into New York already cast in a Broadway musical. I’m hoping that once the reviews come out, and people see me perform, that I can get representation as a multi-hyphenate. I’ve had people reach out to rep me as an actor, but that’s like 30 percent of what I do. It’s a career move for sure.

Are you artistically fulfilled being in 1776?
No, I’m not. The salary is good. My favorite thing in the whole process is my cast. So the social aspect and the salary aspect are fulfilling. The creative aspect, not so much. I feel like I’m going to work.

How does it feel emotionally to perform an ode to slavery every night?
For me, it feels great. I approached this character from my perspective first, not his. I came to it as Sara Porkalob. I’m a person of color who’s not Black, so I have certain privileges that Black folks don’t have, but I’m also not white, so I don’t have certain privileges that other people have. I truly believe that white supremacy hurts all of us, including white people. What I try to do with all of my art — as a director, as a playwright, as a performer — is to point back at the invisible culture that was always around, that we either take for granted or we think we know everything about, and to challenge ourselves. Stepping into this role, I wasn’t interested in humanizing Edward Rutledge — he’s the youngest signee of the Declaration of Independence and I don’t give a fuck. I am portraying the logic and the rhetoric of neoconservatives.

How did your own intersectional identity affect your approach to Rutledge?
When Trump was elected president, I learned that a huge percentage of Filipino Americans voted for him. It makes me think about how assimilation into whiteness is violence too. America still sees race as a binary issue. There’s a lot of anti-Black racism within Asian communities. So when I was approaching Rutledge, I couldn’t remove my race from myself onstage. I didn’t want to make room within myself to humanize him as a character, but I wanted to use all of my skills to embody a manifestation of white supremacy.

So it’s interesting for me, as a Filipino American, having the history of American colonization in my country, but also being very closely related to my grandmother’s generation, who experienced Japanese supremacy. When my grandmother was a young teenager, that’s when the Japanese were occupying the Philippines, and two of her sisters were kidnapped and used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers. My grandmother hates Japanese people. I grew up in a family where, while I was Asian American, I was aware of the nuances between different Asian communities. I felt myself separate from the ones that assimilated more into whiteness. I’m thinking about those things as I’m playing him.

Early in 1776, Ben Franklin says, as a positive, that the American identity is violent. That violence is very present in “Molasses to Rum,” but prior to that, your character is very calm, like a loaded gun. How did you think about pacing Rutledge’s arc?
That’s how racial violence manifests. People say, “Well, that guy might be racist to you but he’s nice to me,” when that guy’s a fucking cop beating in the head of a young Black kid for wearing a hoodie. People want to distance themselves from racism because we automatically attribute racism to being a bad person rather than racism being a way of seeing the world.

Of all the characters in the play, from the very beginning Rutledge knows what he wants, and from an actor’s perspective, that’s easy to play. He’s smart, he’s observant, he’s watchful. I’m probably playing him smarter than he actually was — I know I am. It was really important to me to enrapture the audience with his Southern charm, his affability, and the feeling of, What is this motherfucker gonna do, and when is it gonna happen? Then it happens 20 minutes before the end of the play. In that song, the lyrics are logical. Our directors constructed this new musical interlude where we start to chant “molasses to rum,” where you hear the creaking of the ship, where we have all consented to this reenactment of a slave auction. It moves like a ritual through all of us. There’s a moment in which the tableau switches and the Black folks are trying to take their power back: They’re standing on the table and they’re looking at the white audience. There’s that moment where I switched from being like, I’m just a guy with an argument, into being a slave auctioneer who’s a monster onstage. Then, at the end, we all have to be called back to the Congress.

When you transform into the slave auctioneer and you get to look out and survey who you’re singing to, what is your relationship to the audience?
I’m not afraid of them. I love busting through the fourth wall. I’m like, You came here because you wanted to be here. You came here, you consented to being in this space. Whether or not you consented to the thing that you’re about to see on that stage, that’s something for you to think about after the show, but we’re in it together right now.

There’s another moment, when the cast looks out at the audience as Franklin says, “What will posterity think we were — demigods? We’re men — no more, no less — trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed.”
I think that choice is actually really bad. It feels cringey. On the inside, I’m cringing at that, I’m cringing at the fucking projected egg song, and I cringe a little at the end when we hold out those coats. I’m like, It’s okay. I wouldn’t have wanted it this way, but I am doing my job. The turn out is a bad choice because, in that moment, with what Franklin is saying and us turning out to the audience, it doesn’t achieve what the directors wanted it to. It’s the most humanizing text in this play, and we’re standing there looking at the audience. But the reason we were directed to look at the audience was to remind the audience that we weren’t considered when this compromise was made. Does that read? No, it doesn’t. It drives me crazy. I think, You’ve already achieved that goal, directors, by casting us in this show. People are going to interpret the text, first and foremost. I have to gird my loins for that moment.

How do you see queerness interacting with the show?
I’ll be honest and say that our directors never thought about that. When we were all in the room together, there wasn’t any conversation about how we marry our queer identities with these characters, which is disappointing. It was clear that they were prioritizing the social identifier of race as a driving creative choice more than anything else. Gender identity, sexual identity — those we weren’t talking about.

Were you directed to play men?
Yes, but in a very specific way. We were directed in the beginning of our Boston run to play at being men. It was in the posturing and the gestural work that we were doing in the choreography. According to our choreographer and directors, it had a masculine energy. I think honestly, in that Boston run, that approach did a huge disservice to us as actors. A lot of people were caught up in wondering, Am I a man? Am I myself? Who am I? I decided to pull back in, because I felt, I can’t act in ways that are exciting to me if I’m just playing at being a man. I had to change some things on my end to make it better for me.

What did you change?
I was like, I’m going to get rid of the posturing aspect and think about the charm. I do a lot of things with my nails, I’m always smiling onstage. In reality, what does “being a man” even mean? There are energies that we’ve all agreed are masculine, but we can also recognize that not all men act like that and find our own way into the characters. But there weren’t those discussions in rehearsal, unfortunately.

The cast is a group of women and nonbinary people originating at ART, a very specific institution that has a recent, problematic history with how they approach representation for nonbinary people. What did ART learn or not learn from past experiences?
They learned that they messed up. A blind spot was revealed to them. In terms of fixing that blind spot, they did a very accessible step for an institution — you educate yourself, you hire consultants, you have a “gender explosion” workshop with your current production. But often that first step of education ends when the workshop is done, which I think is unfortunate. If we have a workshop and it’s two hours long, but then we never talk about gender again, what have we done?

What should be done?
When something like that happens, there has to be accountability first and foremost. Accountability for the harm that was done, for the mistake that was made, directly to the people that need it. There needs to be transparency that upholds accountability, but people have to realize just because you’re transparent, it doesn’t mean people are gonna forgive you. They need to practice it as a cultural principle.

Then there’s investigation and restructuring. Institutions often think that you need to investigate everything before you can start to restructure, but that’s not true. They’re afraid to make changes. The third step is institutional and community collaboration. Institutions are always making these five-year fucking plans and being like, We’re gonna make it with a consultant and we’ll share it later. Then they share it with the community after two years and now the community doesn’t care about the institution anymore. But those institutions wouldn’t be alive without the community. I also get it, though, because I’ve worked on the admin side, and I never want to do that again. The fear of getting something wrong and not having a clear-cut five-year plan is why people wait.

So what is the value of an Establishment theater like ART?
I don’t know what the value of an Establishment theater is. I want to believe that it has value, but I will tell you that I’m not very interested in running an Establishment theater, because I would constantly be asking myself that question.

Do you feel conflicted when you’re performing your own work at ART?
Yes and no. The part of me that doesn’t feel the conflict exists for two reasons. The first is because the resources are great. The second is because the people internal to ART really love my work and I really love them. I built a relationship with them as people, not just the people who were the producers on my show, but the front-of-house staff, everybody. They were fucking cool.

The other side — the conflict, is because of their history. What is my collaboration saying to other people about me? That lingers in my head. But at the end of the day, I can’t control what people think about me. I can only hope to stay humble to the possible reality that one day I might make a misstep as an artist to my community because of my relationship to ART. I’m ready to learn and ready to be accountable. I’m not idealistic about this relationship.

When you describe 1776, it sounds like it’s a compromise that you’re willing to make to get where you need to be.

That’s what it is?
Yeah. I’ve made peace with not being the person in a position of power. I’ve made peace with the fact that our play can’t do everything that we wanted it to. I’ve made peace with the reality that, during the first part of the process, it was hectic and there was harm done.

What was the harm?
During the rehearsal process for “Molasses to Rum,” the Black folks were divided into an affinity space separate from the non-Black people of color and the white folks. Our directors wanted to recreate a slave auction and, in doing so, they wanted consent from the Black folks in the play to carry out that vision — they were at the center of this piece, and we were using their Black bodies on stage. But then, the non-Black POC people and the white people were not given the same opportunity to consent to this reenactment. For the non-Black POC folks, another layer was added, because we were assimilated into whiteness with no consideration of how our personal identity intersected with this song or this history. So the directors, by using race as a binary in the construction of “Molasses to Rum,” unconsciously held up a false narrative by assimilating non-Black POC folks into whiteness, because they were prioritizing the Black folks.

And that’s okay. I saw that and I was like, That makes a lot of sense. But it’s clear that they haven’t done any dramaturgical research to talk about what it means for non-Black POC folks to be assimilated into whiteness, and it’s clear that the white people haven’t been asked for their consent either. Then we had a conversation at the beginning of the Broadway run to articulate the harm that was done. We were divided into affinity groups and given the opportunity to talk more about what that harm felt like, and to give our consent to the enactment.

What happens if you don’t give consent?
Then the song would have changed. I was ready for that. I was like, If that’s what we gotta do. But I was also like, I hope we do it the same. I hope that we do get consent because the imagery and the choreography of the song really does point to how America thinks about race. Some audience members might not even notice the non-black POC folks are sitting behind the auction table. But there are going to be people who do.

What do you hope people take from noticing that?
I hope the people who notice think about how they might assimilate non-Black people of color into whiteness. I hope the non-Black people of color in the audience wonder, Do I benefit from whiteness? And the answer is yes. Yes, you do, in different ways that are unique to you and your circumstances.

What do you hope you get out of being in 1776 on Broadway?
A Tony nomination, good reviews, and a smart, personable, hard-working agency that’s ready to rep me. Also, I guess more Instagram followers and more community here in New York. I don’t want just a career. I could make a career just being in commercial Broadway musicals.

You could.
I could. I guess the money would be fine.

The money would be better!
It would be better! But I don’t want that to be my life.

You don’t have the instinct to make more compromises to see if you can get a bigger audience?
I’ll be honest with you. If the producers of Six came to me and said,We want you to be a replacement,” I’d be like, “Which one?” And if it was anyone other than Anne Boleyn, anyone other than the Asian girl in the show, or even if it was Anne Boleyn, I’d say, “What are you paying?” At the end of the day, if I’m compromising my desire to do my own work, but the resources are there, it really just comes down to labor. If I’m compromising, I’d better be getting paid a lot more money, honey. I have to ask, “Do I want to give 100 percent of myself to this?” And for Six? No! They’re gonna get 75 percent, but that 75 percent will be great.

How do you get the confidence to know that your 75 percent is good enough?
If I don’t believe it, who else will? I grew up in a family that has supported me as an artist. I can count on one hand the times anybody in my family ever said anything disparaging to me about my appearance or what I said. I just have a lot of respect and love and care in my family. Giving 100 percent of myself to everything all the time is a recipe for disaster. How am I going to have time for myself, for my partner, or for my family? I want to choose when I do that.

What percentage are you giving 1776?
I’m giving 75 percent. When I do “Molasses to Rum,” I’m giving 90 percent.

The image the audience is left with at the end of 1776 is the cast holding out their Revolutionary-era jackets. Spaces where people of similar backgrounds can be grouped to share their perspectives without voices outside their group — in this case, the groupings were determined by race.
1776’s Sara Porkalob Has Some Notes