Melissa Leilani Larson on creating MESTIZA, or MIXED
BY MELISSA LEILANI LARSON
I am a brown girl with a very white name.
And sure, that “Leilani” in the middle feels—exotic? I was born in Hawai’i and lived there for the first decade of my life. I’m not Hawaiian, but people look at me and guess that I am. Assume that I am.
Finding and embracing one’s personal identity has always been an intriguing theme in the theatre, but it seems to be more (important) now than ever. Representation has always been necessary but has only been adopted more recently.
I did not grow up seeing myself represented in literature or art or drama. But society did not give me any reason to expect to see myself, so I never questioned it. I didn’t see any problems with my parents and their interracial marriage; it all felt perfectly normal and acceptable. It wasn’t until much later in life that I let myself ask—“If our family is so normal and acceptable, why don’t I see myself in books and on TV?”
Representation does matter. More and more, BIPOC writers and artists are coming to the forefront and telling their stories. And while that is thrilling, there are still sharp divides between racial and ethnic groups. As a society, we love to slap labels on people and drop them into categories. Even in the new rush of BIPOC art, I still don’t see myself because I don’t fit neatly in a particular category.
My mother immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines. Her heritage is Asian but also boasts centuries-old touches of Spanish and Belgian. My father’s parents are both of nineteenth century pioneer stock: English on one side, Swedish on the other. What does this make me? A lot of things. Mixed.
I see interracial marriage all the time in real life. But we don’t talk about it, about the beauty of it. Mixed families are normal, and necessary, and beautiful. I want to see them—see me—on stage.
There is an adage: “Write what you know.” For much of my career I have written about things that are dear to me: womxn’s stories, classic literature, cheeseburgers. But there are other things that I know; other things that, if I’m honest, I’ve been terrified to write about. The truth is simple: If I want to see myself represented, I need to represent myself.
MESTIZA, or MIXED is a play about a family that is just that—mixed. Filipino and white. A sister who passes for white and one who doesn’t. A brother trying to fix his flaws but unable to embrace his strengths. It’s about a brown woman with a very white name—a woman whose existence asks questions about art, and belonging, and being American.
This play puts me, a mestiza, on stage for the first time. It is both about me and not about me, and that’s exactly how it should be.
Plan-B Theatre has previously premiered Melissa Leilani Larson's PILOT PROGRAM, THE EDIBLE COMPLEX, and THE POST OFFICE. MESTIZA, or MIXED receives its world premiere June 9-19, 2022 (streaming June 15-19, 2022).