The world premiere of Charles L. White’s Gong Lum’s Legacy, presented by Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre in association with The Peccadillo Theater Company, proves to be a sweet little play that tells the story of a fictional interracial love affair between a Chinese man and a Black woman in 1925 Mississippi. However, it is one of those plays in which each of its 18 scenes only reveals one thing before moving on, while the title has nothing to do with the play as written. Gong Lum vs. Rice was an historic case lasting from 1925 – 27, but neither does Gong Lum appear as a character nor does the play have much to do with this racially motivated landmark case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The staging by New Federal Theatre’s producing artistic director, Elizabeth Van Dyke, is almost as sparse as the play with little stage business but that may have more to do with Chris Cumberbatch’s unit setting than the script.
Joe Ting, a recent Chinese immigrant to 1925 Mound City, Mississippi, has come to join his father Charlie in running Ting’s General Store whose clientele is Chinese, Black and white. He meets and falls in love with local school African-American teacher Lucy Sims. While her brother Melvin is accepting of the relationship, Joe’s father is very much against it, wanting him to marry a Chinese wife who he will have to import as there are few Chinese women in the community. When Joe is set on marrying Lucy before she goes off to finish her teaching degree at the local college, it sets the stage for a confrontation between him and his father.
The historic Gong Lum of nearby Rosedale, Miss., is said to be a friend of Charlie Ting. Wanting the best education for his daughters, he had sent his American-born nine-year old daughter Martha to the all-white Rosedale Consolidated School. On her first day she was notified that she would not be able to return because she was not a member of the white race. The Supreme Court of Mississippi ruled in favor of the school citing the state constitution which called for separate but equal schools for white and “colored” students. At the end of the play which keeps us informed of the case through radio news reports, we learn the shocking outcome of the racially motivated 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision. This was not reversed until the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka ruling put an end to the doctrine of “Separate but Equal.” The only connection this case has with the play is to demonstrate the racism in Mississippi and that when Joe and Lucy have a son, he will have to go North to be able to attend a better funded white school.
While the acting is very believable, both the Chinese and Deep South accents may give many audience members problems with understanding the dialogue. As the hero Joe Ting, Eric Yang is impassioned and fierce. DeShawn White’s Lucy is endearing as the conflicted young woman who knows life in the South will be simpler if she does not marry a Chinese man, particularly as Joe’s father is opposed to the marriage. Made the villain of the piece, Henry Yuk as Joe’s father Charlie is rather one-note but that may be the problem of the writing which almost always has him criticizing Joe and Lucy, rather than his acting. Anthony Goss as Lucy’s brother and Alinca Hamilton as her best friend Loretta Miller, both supportive of the couple, aren’t given much to do but make their presence felt.
Although we are told how successful Ting’s General Store is, Cumberbatch’s grocery setting is deficient in demonstrating this as the shelves are very sparsely stocked although this may have been the job of Marlon Campbell as property designer. The few entrances on the set force the director to stage the play with scenes blocked in similar patterns over and over again. The rather bland costumes by Kathy Roberson give little information about the characters. Best and most effective are the sound design by David Wright and lighting design by Victor En Yu Tan which depict the thunderous rainstorms which threaten to destroy the town and its nearby levee.
On one level, Gong Lum’s Legacy is revealing in that it demonstrates Southern racism against not only African Americans but also Chinese immigrants who were given the same treatment. On another hand, the script which moves rather slowly with its 18 scenes over a period of two years would be more effective if it was less like a screenplay and more stageworthy. The play would also be more powerful if the historic Gong Lum made appearances in the play to tell his own story rather than reporting it as radio news. Playwright Charles L. White has a fine ear for dialogue but is weak in dramaturgy.
Gong Lum’s Legacy (March 24 – April 24, 2022)
Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre in association with The Peccadillo Theater Company
Theatre @ St. Clements, 423 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.instantseats.com/events/NewFederal
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes including one intermission