Identity Matters | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Identity Matters 

In Mestiza, or Mixed, Melissa Leilani Larson digs into her own biracial heritage.

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  • Nick Stone

When I ask playwright Melissa Leilani Larson whether it's a good or a bad thing to be fielding questions about racial identity when it comes to her play Mestiza, or Mixed, she acknowledges that the question itself gets at the complex relationship she has with her own racial identity. And the play is a way of wrestling with that relationship.

"I feel like I'm in this in-between place," Larson says. "Because of my mixed identity, I'm coming to terms with being more comfortable identifying myself as a BIPOC person."

Larson's own mixed heritage—a white father born and raised in the U.S. in Southern Utah, and a Filipino mother—forms part of the foundation of Mesitza, or Mixed. The playwright creates a counterpart for herself in the protagonist Lark Timon, a struggling filmmaker whose career, defined mostly by disappointment, could get a big break, but one that forces her to confront questions about her identity.

There's a bit of irony in the fact that Mestiza appears in the middle of a Plan-B Theatre Company season that artistic director Jerry Rapier has promoted as the first ever by a Utah company entirely consisting of new work by playwrights of color. Rapier himself had a role in encouraging Larson to create the play at all, she says, when she was talking with him about feeling like she was in that "in-between place."

"We first started talking about it at the beginning of the pandemic," Larson recalls. "He said, 'You should put it in a play, it'll be great.' ... Sometimes good theater is about being vulnerable. But I was thinking, 'I'm writing drama, and my life is boring.'"

Crafting the narrative of Mestiza did require her to "create some drama for the sake of drama," Larson says, but much of it did come from a very personal place. She acknowledges that creating something that was so much closer to her autobiographically—unlike many of her theatrical and screenplay projects, which often involved historical figures—presented unique challenges.

"The cutting of that vein stings a little more when you know the people," Larson says. "It's more about me, and do have parallels between me and Lark. But some of [the difficulty] was, 'that's my family,' and that's really hard. ... It's tricky, because while I think it's probably okay to write about myself once I get over that, it's not as easy to write about people who are close to me in the same way."

It's important for her to note, however, that autobiography can only be the start of something if it's going to tell a story that an audience can connect with. Connect everything too much with yourself, as a writer, and you've missed a chance to dig deeper.

"When you're writing a character, the creation of that character is a very personal thing. Sometimes part of the drafting process is asking, 'What would I do in this situation?' Sometimes it's just a place-holder; we don't want all characters to be me. ... It's about fleshing out the world, and making everything as real as possible. I tried to take what I felt was real, and go past that place to make something else, and make that experience real for the audience."

Part of creating a distinct world for Lark in Mestiza was de-emphasizing the playwright's own identity as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Faith has played a role in many of her other works, including her screenplays for Freetown and Jane and Emma, and Larson has proven adept at approaching the subject of faith in ways that aren't simplistic or cheerleading for her church. For Mestiza, however, wanted to keep the focus on other elements of her identity. "I think you could make the argument that this family shares my faith," she says, "but it didn't affect this story, so it didn't come up."

Instead, Mestiza stayed true to its roots in talking about the parts of her identity that aren't always easy to define simply. The complexity of lines between races, especially when it comes to people of mixed-race backgrounds, which is why Larson says it sometimes feels simplistic to her when people use the phrase "representation matters" related to artistic works.

"That's a phrase that's getting thrown around a lot now, and I am glad we're seeing more directors and actors of color coming to the forefront and telling stories," she says. "Sometimes it feels like, when we're talking about race, which is so nuanced and complicated for a lot of people, that very complicated issue is boiled down to the simplest common denominator.

"When people talk about representation mattering, I never really expected that, because I don't see people that look like me. ... When I think about my family, I haven't really seen a family that looks like mine [portrayed in art], so maybe I have to build it myself."

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About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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