When David Henry Hwang's 1981 play, THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD, begins, we see a lone figure, aptly named Lone, practicing his acrobatic dancing in an isolated mountain area. In his whirls and leaps, he seems to take command of this rugged terrain. Enter Ma, another young Chinese man, and we begin a series of encounters between the two men that define their experience as immigrant laborers on the transcontinental railroad -- "coolies," as they were called. Ma has come to warn Lone that his fellow workers are getting angry at his haughty demeanor and refusal to participate in their gambling and drinking. The men are more idle than usual as they are striking for a shorter work day and a $10 a month raise.
Lone was being trained for years to be a performer in the Chinese opera before his poor parents essentially sold him off to indentured servitude on the railroad. His way of dealing with his experience is to dance alone, a reminder of the life he wished to have. Lone has no illusions about his position in this country of "white devils." He has been working on the railroad for two years and has lost all hope in a happy future. Ma has only been working a month and believes all the propaganda he has heard -- that the mountains are filled with gold, that he will get rich, that he is in control of his destiny. The workers' strike proves to him that the workers have control over the "white devils." Ma also dreams of being a performer in Chinese opera and wants Lone to teach him how to dance. He does not understand why Lone's lessons often become humiliating experiences, as Lone is trying through the lessons to teach Ma the despair he feels. In the most interesting and theatrically effective scene in the 70 minute play, Lone and Ma improvise a Chinese opera that recounts their experiences crossing the Pacific and working on the railroad. Creating and performing this opera creates a temporary bond between these two displaced men and is also a brief catharsis for them. At the end, Lone is again dancing alone before going back to work.
THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD is a beautiful, poignant, theatrically effective play, another of Hwang's East meets West sagas. If the recently revived GOLDEN CHILD showed how Western religion and morality can undermine a Chinese home, THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD shows how a bit of Chinese culture can make harsh life in the West more bearable. For these men, Chinese opera becomes a way of expressing grace and beauty in a West that is exploitation, grueling labor gambling and the vain hope for easy riches. Yet there is nothing preachy about the play. It communicates through theatrical poetry.
This revival at the Signature Theatre, directed by May Adrales, is still in previews. The hills in Mimi Lien's set seem to be extensions of the angular design of Frank Gehry's theatre, but they create effective playing spaces for the two performers. Jiyoun Chang's lighting is very effective at capturing the changing moods of the play. Right now -- and this may change -- the problem with the production is the acting. Yuekun Wu moves beautifully and captures Lone's haughtiness and unhappiness, but he loses some of the play's humor. Ruy Iskandar captures Ma's callowness, but we need to see why he wants and needs Lone's tutelage -- why he needs to bond with the man the other workers despise. In getting all the externals right. Adrales and her actors have forgotten the more important internal dynamics that are the heart of the play. Maybe they'll find them by the official opening night, but they should have been there from the first rehearsals.
THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD by David Henry Hwang. Pershing Square Signature Center. February 14, 2013.