At the very end of Wesley Du’s solo play about a Chinese-American boy named Pinky who wants to be a blues guitarist, Pinky reads aloud a letter from Cannonball, the irascible, bigoted Black blues musician who was grudgingly his mentor: “As Beethoven said, ‘To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.’ You got the passion, boy…”
If Cannonball seemed an unlikely character to be quoting Beethoven, his message resonates for “Hong Kong Mississippi.” I have misgivings about choices Du makes in his play, but its passion is unmistakable.
Du portrays more than a dozen characters in Pinky’s coming of age story, nailing their disparate voices. His mother Pei Ling was once a beautiful teenage ballet dancer, but by 1991 she has become an embittered single mother who works at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, and apparently has put to work her 11-year-old son, whom she named Pinky because she preferred to have a girl. The restaurant is next to a blues club, called the “Chickie Wah Wah Club” (which is the actual name of a famous jazz club in New Orleans) Pinky is intrigued by the sounds coming from the club, and by the guys hanging outside it, including the owner Cornbread, a drunk named Memphis, and especially Cannonball (the nickname of a famous jazz saxophonist), who makes sounds ooze from his guitar like honey. Pinky sees him eating in the restaurant one day, and boldly approaches him: “I may be Asian on the outside but I’m all B.B. King Blues blood on the inside. I’m the hip to the hop. The hop to the hip. The ying to the yang. I don’t do none of that kung fu with ease. I only look like I’m Chinese.”
Cannonball looks up at him from underneath the brim of his fedora: “Egg roll motherfucka, get the fuck out of my face, boy,” he growls, beginning a tirade.
Pinky tells us: “And it is at that moment that I know that I need Cannonball to love me.”
He becomes so infatuated with the blues that the piano teacher his mother forces him to take lessons from, a Russian nun named Sister Petrov, calls him the worst student she’s ever taught, because he makes Tchaikovsky sound like the blues, which she says is like changing Chekhov into an episode of the Golden Girls.
The harshness of Du’s depictions at first seems humorous, as does the stages of adolescence through which Pinky passes. But as Pinky ages, the depictions of the other characters turn ugly. His father returns from prison, beats his mother then abandons the family, which Pei Ling blames on Pinky. Pinky’s friend Booger, who’s a midget, tries to rape Pinky’s nascent love interest Eva, whose parents move her out of the neighborhood shortly afterwards.
Presumably all this pain helps Pinky to become a better blues musician; Cornbread gives him the nickname Hong Kong Mississippi, and he begins playing at the club. But it also provokes him into trying to escape, moving out of his mother’s house into the club at age 16, doing odd jobs there. Then he steals money from the cash register to go on auditions for various music schools. One accepts him (“They need their token Asian kid.”) but after two years expels him. By the time he turns 26 years old, the only job he can find is working in a Chinese restaurant in New York City. “But I’m still auditioning, playing, hustling trying to turn nothing into something.”
Given how much “Hong Kong Mississippi” centers on Pinky’s infatuation with blues music, it’s surprising that it’s not until hallway through the play that we even see a guitar – a “beautiful blue and white Fender Stratocaster” that he takes out of one of the crates that dot the stage in Michael Smith’s confusing set. And it’s disappointing how little Du plays it, offering a lick here, a few measures there; there’s a full solo (accompanied by a piped-in recording of “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix) only at the end.
Although director Craig Belknap is expert at creating theatrical beats, helped by Jeff Davis’s lighting design, there are missed opportunities for authentic dramatic moments: It would have made sense for us to witness the moment Pinky first learns a blues song, for example, or the moment he first plays to an audience. There are a couple of reconciliation scenes at the end of “Hong Kong Mississippi,” but they feel mawkish, abrupt, unearned, because none of the characters other than Pinky have revealed much in the way of an interior life.
“Hong Kong Mississippi” begins with Du telling a Chinese folk tale (while holding a puppet) of a little boy and a fire-breathing dragon. “Hong Kong Mississippi” would have worked better if Du had been able to muster as much compassion for his human characters as for that dangerous, unpleasant beast who just needed someone to understand that he was lonely in order to stop setting things on fire.
Hong Kong Mississipppi
La MaMa through May 14
Running time: 80 minutes no intermission
Tickets: $30. Students/seniors: $25
Written and performed by Wesley Du
Directed by Craig Belknap
Set design by Michael Smith lighting design by Jeff Davis, costume design by Mimi Maxmen, sound design by Bill Froggatt, dramaturg Laura Campbell