The Dance and The Railroad – David Henry Hwang #johnlone

Before reading this play I wanted to research the building of the Transcontinental Railway in the USA – but stopped myself.  I wanted to absorb it first via the play itself and pick out the key themes that stood out for me.

My history lessons would never have touched on this part of American history itself. I am a white British female, with an English education – so the building of the Transcontinental Railway wouldn’t be something that would be taught in the UK (or it wasn’t in the 70s/80s) – so it’s completely new to me. It makes me wonder though if we had been taught about it – to what degree and from what perspective?  I am not so naive to think that the sculpting and success of America wasn’t down to the blood, sweat and tears of other cultures – a past that the British have played a very large part in too.

David Henry Hwang’s introduction (dated 1982) gives a very good overview of the changing face of American theatre at that time.  The emergence and growth of Asian American performing arts were central to the success of artists such as John Lone – who found a place to perform and be recognised.  David mentions ‘Asian actors who have hoped to play Shakespeare have found themselves to be on the outskirts of theatrical communities‘ – this saddens me greatly.

Quite interestingly this play was commissioned by the New Federal Theatre under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education in – opening in early 1981.  It went onto the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre (Anspacher Theatre, July 16 1981) and produced by Joseph Papp.

Cast: John Lone (LONE), Tzi Ma (MA)
Directed by: John Lone
Writer: David Henry Hwang

From the opening lines, I simply fell into the story, instantly transported back to June 1867. It was one of those moments where I was so absorbed a steam train could crash by and I’d remain oblivious to it.

The dialogue is so powerful and clever throughout – I think if I wrote anything this good I would die happy, fully creatively content.  It’s the perfect example of how a short few words can change everything, or give you so much information about that character.  Something in screenwriting that I have been pulled up on is being too verbose, “cut it down, keep it simple… let the Director do the work“.

Just some background – the two characters are striking railroad workers, Lone and Ma. The aloof Lone being the elder at 20, an actor, has a hopeful apprentice in newly arrived Ma, 18.  The pages that follow are just delightful in terms of how the two men’s relationship develops and the shifts in status that I picked out at certain points.

Scene 1
A mountaintop, Lone is practising opera steps. He swings his pigtail around like a fan. Ma enters, cautiously, watches from a hidden spot. Ma approaches Lone.

The first few insults are thrown at Ma from Lone (and even a hair whip into his face) as the younger man has the guts to approach him.  They start with a pushing scuffle – with Ma proclaiming “I just wanted to watch”,  in the first few lines we establish he wants advice from Lone. Here we learn that Lone is older, therefore, should be respected ‘A child who tries to advise a grown man..’.  Ma is brave enough to confront Lone about his segregation from the other workers, undeterred Lone still tries to get rid of him “I think you’re an insect interrupting my practice. So fly away. Go home.”  Ma’s banter is cheeky and you can’t help but like this character’s charm.  He tries to tempt Lone with being the middleman between him and the other workers “If one day, you wake up and your head is buried in the shit can” – Lone doesn’t care “His head is too big for this mountain

Scene 2
Mountaintop. Next day. Lone is practising. Ma enters

Ma has the audacity to approach him again and craftily turns around what occurred the previous day to being Lone’s fault  MA”I forgive you” LONE”You… what?” MA”For making fun of me yesterday. I forgive you” – Ma may be the younger one, but he is a great manipulator as we see now. Plus we see how driven he is to get what he wants.  He lays it open that he wants to learn “The dance, the opera – I can do it“. His belief in himself is admirable – plus his naivety seemed to have melted into Lone’s steely exterior as he goes into some explanation of the downsides of becoming an actor “You don’t know how you endanger your relatives by becoming an actor“.  Ma has delusions of grandeur, and this is evident from his claims “I’ll be rich by the time I get out of here, right?”.  The more worldly Lone, who only at 20 feels so much older – two years in the States he must see Ma as a younger version of himself when he first arrived. This gives you a bitter taste of what lies the Chinese workers were told to tempt them to make the journey to the States.  Ma see’s his work in America as a heroes journey and describes what stories he will tell “We laid tracks like soldiers, Mountains? We hung from cliffs in baskets and the winds blew us like birds. Snow? We lived underground like moles for days at a time. Deserts? We…” As we go further into this scene, we see a power play from Lone to Ma – the throwing of the Die or Siu dice into the bushes and whether Ma will retrieve them.  In fact, he uses the dice as a bargaining tool for lessons from Lone. Lone reminds him of the physical sacrifice he will have to make – Ma is ready for the challenge.  Lone now reveals something deep about himself, his seclusion and opera practice.  It’s a tool by which he retains his culture – “I look at the other ChinaMen and think, they are dead. Their muscles work only because the white man forces them. I live because I can still force my muscles to work for me“.  This to me is the most powerful line delivered in the play.  It says so much about his pride, his culture, traditions and independence – even through his hardship. Lone is a man of integrity, rather than seclusion.

Scene 3
Lone and Ma are doing physical exercises

Here we witness a different style of banter between the two men, it’s almost quite ‘couple banter’ to me.  There’s a great piece of dialogue about a worker eating other men’s fingernails delivered by Lone – made me heave a little!

Ma’s ambitious, Lone tries to be realistic with his expectations of what type of role can he can play – Gwan Gung is out of bounds for now – after all his own struggles as a boy are a heart-breaking read “I tell you, if you work very hard, when you return to China, you can perhaps be the Second Clown“.  This scene must be wonderful to witness on stage – where they are imitating animals “No man who’s just been a duck has the right to call anything stupid“.  Ma’s ignorance agitates Lone and the apparent lack of acknowledgement revealing his past, he abruptly terminates their agreement – referring to Ma as an insect – as he did at the start of Scene 1. Ma shows his dedication to Lone and his training by remaining as a locust till Lone returns.

Scene 4
Night, Ma, alone, as a locust.

An intense narration by Ma of how locusts were responsible for the famine and subsequent deaths of his uncles family (Second Uncle), and how Ma and his brother found a torture den in retaliation “What if Second Uncle could see me now? Would he cut off my legs? He might as well. I can barely feel them.  But then again, Second Uncle never tortured actual locusts, just weak grasshoppers.”

Scene 5
Night. Ma still as a locust.

Lone brings Ma some rice and duck, plus good news that the strike is over.  Buoyed by this news, Lone’s attitude has somewhat changed, declaring that Ma can play the part of Gwan Gung after all.  This isn’t what Ma is after – he wants a play about himself.

There flows a wonderful piece of dialogue where Ma asks frequently “So tell me, how many have died?” – referring to being in the bottom of the boat for 36 days.  Disturbingly Lone announces prior to this and the water-crossing dance “The one hundred twenty-five dollars passage is to be paid to the said head of said Hong, who will make arrangements with the coolies, that their wages shall be deducted until the debt is absorbed“.  At this point, I had to put the book down – I just felt so terribly sad for these people who endured this terrible experience – the wickedness in the entire chain.  These people just wanted a better life for their families – a slice of the American dream.   There are so many more moving lines in this scene, its impossible to pull them all out. Snappy, emotive dialogue evolves into a role reversal with Lone relenting about the other workers – where Ma proclaims “they are dead men“, he feels the strike won them nothing after all. Ma doesn’t want to continue his training… MA “I’m sorry, Lone. I haven’t got time to be the Second Clown”  LONE “I thought you might not”.

David Henry Hwang quite rightly dedicated this book to the Asian American theatre people across the nation.  Writing this play, at such a young age himself, was an incredible achievement and demonstrates his sheer talent as a writer.

I’d like to think that all of us in this world, no matter what colour or culture can appreciate this story and its look at a harrowing history – can you imagine our history lessons were learnt via plays rather?

I wish I could go back in time to see this play performed by John Lone and Tzi Ma –  the only copy appears to be accessible in the New York public library.  I am probably crazy enough to book flights and see it.  

Watch this space!

If you liked this review, please check out my other reviews in the menu, including M.Butterfly.

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