In a tale told in David Henry Hwang’s graceful and gorgeous early play, a father literally explodes when his son tells him he has become an actor. “Little bits of his skin are found hanging from trees days later. You don’t know how you endanger your relatives by becoming an actor.”
The man talking, Lone, is telling this story to Ma, who wants to be the older man’s protégé as a performer. Ma is 18. Lone is 21.
Hwang was barely older than his two characters when he wrote “The Dance and the Railroad,” a play little more than 70 minutes long that was only his second to be produced professionally. If Hwang’s father, a Chinese immigrant who became a prominent California banker, never actually exploded at Hwang’s decision to become a playwright, he at first disapproved.
It should be no surprise, then, that an underlying theme of this play – made clear in the visually splendid new production at Signature theater — is the commitment it takes, the sacrifices required, to live the life of an artist.
That theme might have been less obvious when “The Dance and The Railroad” was first produced in New York, at Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theater at the Henry Street Settlement, which I had the pleasure of seeing – for a ticket that cost me $1.50! (The audience was primarily schoolchildren). I had been tipped off to something new and extraordinary: The play presents an immigrant experience not awash in sentimentality, a story of two Chinese men told from their point of view.
It is 1867, and the two men have come to America to work as laborers on the transcontinental railroad in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Neither came willingly; both were forced by economic need and their families to take the long unpleasant journey; both expect to return. Lone was yanked from Chinese opera school, where he had trained for eight years and was about to make his debut playing the heroic character Gwan Gung. Now, each day after the backbreaking work of trying to break up a mountain, Lone retreats to practice his dance moves. Ma has been in America only four weeks and still believes the stories of the riches that will be his; he is so naïve that he can’t wait until it snows, so that he can take a sample back to show his family in China.
Ma asks an initially reluctant Lone to teach him to perform as Gwan Gung. What follows is a wee reminiscent of the movie “The Karate Kid” or the TV series “Kung Fu” but layered with a tone, a tempo and a talent closer to “Waiting for Godot” — as if presented by a Chinese Opera company.
Lone and Ma have more time to practice than usual because they are participating in the Chinese workers’ strike of 1867, an actual historic event in which the Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad fought for higher wages and a shorter workday — for the same eight-hour day that the white workers had already been given. As we see in his later plays, from “M. Butterfly” to “Chinglish,” Hwang has a knack for placing his stories in an enriching historical context.
If Hwang’s dialogue – spare and often droll in “The Dance and The Railroad” — has become more persuasive and sophisticated over the past three decades, it is the exquisite use of movement here that gives the play much of its appeal — and it is in their dancing that Ruy Iskandar as Ma and especially Yuekun Wu as Lone stand out. Mimi Lien’s set, an abstract geometric interpretation of a California mountaintop, combines with Jiyoun Chang’s lighting design to create one breathtaking tableau after another, enhanced by Huang Ruo’s music.
My thrill at the memory of discovering David Henry Hwang for $1.50 in the tiny theater of the Henry Street Settlement is in no way diminished by this revival. It is what I love about Signature — the chance it gives, at a comparatively affordable price ($25!), to make old discoveries into new ones.
The Dance and The Railroad
The Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd Street
By David Henry Hwang
Directed by May Adrales, scenic design by Mimi Lien, costume design by Jennifer Moeller, lighting design by Jiyoun Chang
Casting: Ruy Iskandar Yuekun Wu
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission
Ticket prices: $25 for every seat until March 17. $50 to $70 afterwards.
“The Dance and The Railroad” is set to run through March 24th.