The Dance and the Railroad – Chinese-American History

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by: Sandi Durell

David Henry Hwang is an award winning playwright (M. Butterfly, Ching-lish) who enlightens audiences in unique and fascinating ways as a storyteller of history. In “The Dance and the Railroad,” written in 1981, the narrative is based upon the inhuman treatment of the China-men who were used, like slaves, to dig through a mountain in 1867 for the Transcontinental Railroad.

The portrayal by Ruy Iskandar as Ma and Yuekun Wu as Lone invokes the use of the ancient Chinese martial arts and Chinese Opera technique, where men played roles of women. High on a mountaintop, Lone is practicing these arts as he whirls, twirls and shakes his long braid in repetitive movements round and round. He is disciplined and stays away from the other men who are now on strike below the mountain, negotiating with the “white devil” for an additional $10 a day in wages and to reduce their work time from 10 to 8 hour days, the same as the white workers.

Lone, who has been on the mountain for 3 years, does not value their cause as his practice is interrupted by Ma, a newcomer to the mountain with dreams of getting rich, becoming an actor in China, and starting his own Chinese Opera starring Ma! He realizes that Lone can teach him a great deal and wishes to become his student. Ma is persistent as Lone keeps refusing to deal with him until he gives Ma exercises to perform, like being a locust in crouched position for 2 days. When he sees that Ma is serious he takes him on. They speak and dance in rhythmic and lithe motions, as they jump and fly up and around the set (designed by Mimi Lien) of angular and sharp edged abstract mountain-esque blocks.

In 70 minutes, you are mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the movements of these two actors. When the strike is over, Ma finally realizes truths that Lone has made him see, and relinquishes his dreams. The production is simple, truthful and thrilling to behold directed by May Adrales.

*Photo: Joan Marcus
The Signature Theatre at Pershing Square, West 42nd Street, NYC, thru March 24th.
212 244-7529 www.signaturetheatre.org

 

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