Go see David Henry Hwang’s “Dance and the Railroad”

betty ming liu Inspiration 5 Comments

The other night, I sat in a beautiful, darkened theater on W. 42nd Street, sipping a Rum and Diet Coke while watching a play that first moved me 32 years ago. Re-acquainting myself with the long-forgotten dialogue and specific scenes was like suddenly reconnecting with an old friend. The experience was wonderfully intimate and rejuvenating!

Back in 1981 when “Dance and the Railroad” opened at Joe Papp’s Public Theater downtown, I was thrilled. I was a year out of grad school and just breaking into the very, very white world of journalism. Between being a little yellow speck of dust and growing up in the ghetto subculture of New York City’s Chinatown, “Dance and the Railroad” offered validation of my immigrant family’s experience.

It was mind-blowing to think that a 20-something Chinese-American guy had written a play that was getting great buzz in our community — and beyond. The piece, by David Henry Hwang, was set in the 1800s, with two Chinamen talking about the hope and bitterness of their lives as exploited workers building the railroad in David’s home state of California.

Fast forward to February 2013 at the gorgeous Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St.), way over near 11th Avenue. On a freezing Sunday night, I watched the 70-minute play again with my younger self sitting right next to me. So this is why old people love nostalgia, haha! The reuniting of my past and present selves in that theatermade me feel fully multi-dimensional. Not exactly like I was young again; more like maybe, I never really got old — especially since David’s exploration of identity remains central for me.

Yes, I’m still a seeker. But I am different now. So is the world.

David, who has won more awards and accolades than I can fit into this blog post, remains an artistic resource for us all, Asian or otherwise. Over the years, I have seen almost everything he has done. Of course, some of his pieces move me more than others. But that’s the fun and inspiration in following him: David is always challenging himself, which means that he is always challenging me.

This was my first visit to The Signature and it’s worth a trip. If you go early, there’s a book store, lovely cafe with food, beverages and booze.

Now that I have the lay of the land, I am ready to return when the Fall/Winter theater season kicks off with the world premiere of “Kung Fu,” David’s take on Bruce Lee. THIS IS TOO EXCITING!!!!

As for the current Off-Broadway run for “Dance and Railroad,” it was just extended through March 24. Here is the link for buying tickets, which are only $25 each.

All of us are now operating on a global stage where the world has changed so much. I was reminded of the changes last night, as I watched the Oscars. There were cute Asian guys in the TV commercials! And at some moments when the camera panned to the audience, it seemed like every other white man in Hollywood had an Asian wife. Both of these developments merit separate discussions. My only point is that the conversational talking points on identity issues is expanding and deepening on multiple fronts…

For myself personally, certain topics (like tiger parents) can still get me in a rage. But I am also a happier and more fulfilled person than in the past. This reality, I think, makes me more creative in approaching issues that piss me off. After all, life is too short to waste it on just venting.

That’s why it’s so great to have David out there expressing himself. Over the years that we’ve gotten to know each other through shared community projects, I’ve really appreciated his steadfastness in tackling issues as an artist. David, you’re the best. xoxoxoxoxo.

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Comments 5

  1. Christina

    Ahhhh! I had just seen this production advertised in the Times and also recently at the Asia Society and put it on my list of thing to see. Thanks for sharing about it. As a Ph.D. candidate about to hit the job market (in this insane economy), however, I am trying to exercise discretion about where I spend my limited funds. N.Y. always has something to offer and it’s tempting to try and take it all in! This is the final nudge I needed, and at $25.00 a ticket it’s a deal.

  2. Post
    betty ming liu

    Christina, as a writer, you will want to visit the new 75,000-square-foot Pershing Square Signature Center. It opened in 2012 with and a mission to nurture writers. There are three types of programs for writers-in-residence (with health insurance + cash), three theaters, two studios. Over five years, it plans 45 productions. The space is absolutely breathtaking.

    This link includes the center’s mission statement plus a video that explains the program in greater detail:

    This is the mission statement from the website: http://www.signaturetheatre.org/about/index.aspx

    If you don’t have time to go there now, this is what it says as the center’s mission statement: “Signature Theatre Company exists to honor and celebrate the playwright. Founded in 1991 by James Houghton, Signature makes an extended commitment to a playwright’s body of work, and during this journey, the writer is engaged in every aspect of the creative process.

    Signature is the first theatre company to devote an entire season to the work of a single playwright, including re-examinations of past writings as well as New York and world premieres. By championing in-depth explorations of a living playwright’s body of work, the Company delivers an intimate and immersive journey into the playwright’s singular vision.”

  3. Christina

    Thanks, Betty! Now that I am graduating this semester I hope to have more time and energy to pursue my other passions. Keep the posts coming! :)

  4. Cassandra Aoki

    I’ve not seen anything by David Henry Hwang since I’ve only been to New York once. Although Honolulu has a large Asian population, it’s a mixture of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, and Filipino. The only kinds of plays that we get to come here are Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Wicked (most current). We have had Miss Saigon but otherwise are sorely lacking in anything Asian. It’s almost like our entertainment has to be tourist or youth oriented (Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, etc.). We have a lot of Japanese nationals and now Chinese nationals coming here but I doubt they would understand the Asian plays done in English. That’s part of our dilemma. But I bet a lot of our older Asians who have grown up here would appreciate an Asian play from New York.

    Funny, I noticed the same thing with the Asian wives at the Oscars. I also noticed the young Asian males in mostly the Sam Sung commercials for the new Note or whatever they call it (my Asian male husband says it’s just like the IPhone).

    1. Post
      betty ming liu

      Cassandra, we were watching for the same thing during the Oscars! As for Asian plays, David is American-born so his take on things reflects that. His latest play, “Chinglish,” had a good Broadway run and is now in Hong Kong. But his stuff really does reach beyond the Asian-only community. I’ll bet there’s more variety in Hawaii when you hit the student theater circuit. :)

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