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The Dance and the Railroad

Signature Theatre's smart revival proves that David Henry Hwang's play about Chinese-American railroad workers is still relevant.

Ruy Iskandar and Yuekun Wu in The Dance and the Railroad.
© Joan Marcus
Can you imagine the Federal Government funding a play that uses the term "white devil" no fewer than ten times? It seems unthinkable in today's atmosphere of austerity, but that's what happened in 1981 when David Henry Hwang's The Dance and the Railroad premiered at the Henry Street Settlement, written under commission for the Department of Education. Of course that was long ago, before Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment and Piss Christ, two National Endowment for the Arts-sponsored works that so offended "public morality" they led to a successful movement to slash public funding to the arts that came close to destroying the NEA altogether. Luckily, there are still well-funded private not-for-profits to produce challenging plays like The Dance and the Railroad, now smartly revived at the Pershing Square Signature Center as part of the Hwang's year-long residency there.

This two-hander, set in 1867, follows Chinese-American migrant laborers working on the transcontinental railroad in a place they call "Gold Mountain." Lone (Yuekun Wu) is the older of the two. After three years of backbreaking labor, he's become disillusioned with the prospective gold to be had on the mountain. He's also incredibly judgmental of the "dead men" who work with him in the camp, send all their hard-earned money back to China, and do little else. Ma (Ruy Iskandar) is eighteen, fresh off the boat, and bullish about his future in a land where he's been told the snow is warm and great riches are to be had. The backdrop is a labor strike; the Chinese are demanding better wages and shorter work days from their slave-driving management. The work stoppage gives Lone and Ma time to bond over a mutual love, the Cantonese opera, in which Lone trained from a young age and still practices every day in an isolated mountain clearing.

Set designer Mimi Lien did a remarkable job creating their mountain dance studio. The angular crags of her set meld seamlessly into the wooden quadrilaterals that adorn the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, giving the impression that the audience is in a cave, looking out on the action of the play. Jiyoun Chang's dramatic lighting design exudes the old west. As the men play upon the stage, their shadows dance against the rock face. Lien's set is not only beautiful, but practical, offering multiple levels on which the actors can play.

Director May Adrales takes full advantage of this, sending the actors up and down the rocky platforms throughout. At one point, Iskandar creeps up the steep inclines quacking like a duck. There is something oddly comforting in the notion that, even in nineteenth century Chinese opera, actor training still consisted mostly of crawling around on the floor and pretending to be an animal.

Of course, this is aided by Wu, who plays Lone like the archetypal failed-actor-turned-teacher, conjuring strange and sadistic exercises for his young padawan while condescendingly barking cryptic bits of wisdom. He's the Mister Miyagi of traditional Chinese dance and his mannerisms are so over-the-top that it feels as though he's always on stage (although I suppose he is). Iskandar is much more natural in his approach, bringing the perfect amount of puppy-like naiveté and adolescent bluster to Ma. Their styles and deliveries are so different that it occasionally feels as though they are acting in different plays.

They come together however, in a thrilling account of the Chinese migrant worker told in the form of Cantonese opera (in English), complete with singing, dancing, and stylized martial arts, leaving both actors in a sweat. This segment, the highpoint of the play, is successful thanks to Adrales' lightning-quick staging, composer Huang Ruo's haunting music, and Broken Chord's rich sound design.

Hwang takes a big risk by employing such an idiosyncratic form, the combination of naturalism and Cantonese opera -- and it pays off. He has written a play that is formally innovative, crystal clear in its story-telling, but not overly-simplistic. This is quite a feat considering it was originally written for a public school audience in 1981.

Thirty-two years later, Hwang's play still feels fresh. Perhaps that is because the basic story of first generation immigrants to the United States hasn't changed much in the last 146 years: migrant laborers still toil away in low-wage jobs, sending what little extra money they earn back to their home countries in the form of remittances. Management is still looking for ways to keep migrant workers in their place, doing the "hardest, toughest, dirtiest jobs." America might be a land of opportunity, but that opportunity is usually reserved for your children when you are a first generation immigrant, not you. And just like the two men in this play, millions have discovered these truths only after they are already here, trapped by responsibility, and desperately clinging to any shred of identity not related to employment.