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Citizen Wong

Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 17, 2022

Malka Wallick and Whit K. Lee
Photo by John Quincy Lee
Earlier this season, the Ma-Yi Theater Company and the Public Theater presented Lloyd Suh's The Chinese Lady, which tells the story of Afong Moy, the first known Chinese woman in the United States. The play recounts the brutality and bigotry Chinese immigrants faced in the 19th century along with the demeaning stereotypes propagated in the popular American theatre, expositions, and media of the time. Pan Asian Repertory Theatre's world premiere of Richard Chang's Citizen Wong, currently playing at A.R.T./ New York Theatres, may be regarded as a companion piece to Suh's play. Chang's dramatization riffs on the life of Wong Chin Foo, a journalist, political activist, and lecturer, and who was the first to identify himself as Chinese American. In addressing the racist atrocities and exploitation leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Citizen Wong, like The Chinese Lady, shines an important light on histories not typically covered in the U.S. curriculum.

In a program note, Chang describes Wong as a "forerunner of social justice" and "a Gilded Age pioneer who wielded pen and pulpit to fight the first U.S. law to ban any race from the country." Wong (in a spirited portrayal by Whit K. Lee) also saw the potential of theatre and performance to educate people about diverse cultures and experiences, and he envisioned a theatre specifically for Asians. Appropriately, the play includes elements of traditional Chinese opera to counter standard yellowface depictions of the late 1800s.

Mostly, though, Citizen Wong offers a fairly straightforward account of the subject's life. Notably, there are Wong's skirmishes with Denis Kearney (Scott Klavan, who does well in several parts), an Irish labor leader and anti-Chinese firebrand. The play also highlights Wong's accomplishments establishing a bilingual newspaper and testifying in Congress about the laws created to prohibit Chinese immigration.

The play is grounded in historical fact, but it is often overwhelmed by the fictional romance between Wong and Eliza Stanhope (vivaciously portrayed by Malka Wallick), a suffragette and the daughter of railroad tycoon Leigh Stanhope (Klavan). Eliza is the very model of a modern woman, and she stands in stark contrast to her conservative and narrow-minded mother (effectively played by Sandy York, stepping in for Bonnie Black at the performance I attended). Before Wong comes on the scene, the Stanhopes' association with Chinese immigrants extends only to transcontinental railway workers and servants, including their devoted cook Wong Si Ping (Shing Chung, who moves effortlessly among a handful of roles). Shortly after Eliza marries a spurious lawyer (a suitably oily Nick Jordan), whose amorous sights are aimed elsewhere, she and Wong begin a decades' long clandestine affair.

There is at once too much in the mix and not enough. Wong's achievements were prolific and impressive, yet here they are presented as living newspaper rather than through flesh-and-blood characters. In addition, his fascinating backstory is presented as a devastating revelation, but we do not know enough about the emotional life of the man or sufficiently care about the potentially scandalous relationship at the play's center to be shocked or saddened.

Strikingly, most of the scenes take place in homes, theatres, and political spaces controlled by whites. Asians are often relegated to off-stage references or recordings. (Chinese rail workers and protesters are presented as voiceover chants in Joseph Wolfslau's sound design.) And while Pan Asian Rep prides itself on nurturing Asian American artists, the white-presenting company members outnumber the Asian actors two-to-one in this production. At one point, Wong attends a play and tells the producer: "My only suggestion would be to have an all-Chinese cast play every character, in whiteface." The meta-theatricality of this drama would certainly seem to support a non-traditional approach to casting.

The direction by Ernest Abuba and Chongren Fan is efficient, but it tends to be a series of uninspired cross overs and exits that contribute to the play's workmanlike effect. The exception is during the Chinese opera scenes, which are excitingly executed by Lee and the cast.

Karen Boyer's costumes beautifully capture the historical and cultural milieus, and Leslie Smith's lighting and Lacey Erb's projections convey the clash of 19th-century theatricality with the stark brutality of the tumultuous environment. The simple though meaningful scenic design by You-Shin Chen makes excellent use of fringed, geometric-shaped screens that metaphorically represent the Chinese symbols of heaven and earth.

Although Citizen Wong does not match the level of artistry of The Chinese Lady, it emphasizes theatre's responsibility to educate, to challenge, and to examine our painful past and present. And on that, the play succeeds mightily.

Citizen Wong
Through May 1, 2022
Pan Asian Repertory Theatre
A.R.T./New York Theatres, Mezzanine Theatre, 502 West 53rd Street
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