From the moment he walks out with a stuffed “Disneyfied” dragon to tell us a fairy tale his mother told him when he was little, we are enraptured by Pinky, an 11-year-old Chinese boy growing up in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Written and performed by Wesley Du, Hong Kong Mississippi is a coming-of-age tale that speaks innocently, yet often in frank terms, of racism. And providing the real dose of irony, the only other character to experience a seismic shift in the play is the man who resents Pinky the most, a man who against his better judgment unknowingly becomes Pinky’s mentor and father figure he never had.
Du plays 15 characters seamlessly, some we know a lot about and some very little, but even those few for whom we know very little, they are still impactful in the grand scheme of who Pinky ultimately becomes. Pinky’s innocence in the Chickie Wah Wah Blues Club is particularly telling – he stoically comes face to face with racism against all Asians in encounters with Cornbread, the owner; Memphis, the town drunk who is usually found outside the club’s doors expounding in anti-Korean rhetoric as they now appear to own all the businesses in the neighborhood; and most acutely with Cannonball, an old black bluesman that holds all Asians responsible for the death of his soldier son in the Vietnam War.
Pinky’s relationship with his mother, Pei Ling, is combative at best, and only gets worse as he gets older. Pei Ling is derisive at most times, insulting Pinky’s looks, his intelligence and his self-worth, as she points to his birth as being the beginning of the downward spiral of her own life. Pinky’s real father probably wasn’t even aware he had sired a child, so she convinces Meng Yao, a hardened man returning from eleven years in prison, that the boy is his. Meng Yao finding a diary with an entry divulging Pinky’s true identity, sets the stage for a horrific beatdown of Pei Ling in front of her son. This put into focus for the now 13-year-old Pinky: what is worse, finding out he is illegitimate, or watching his whore mother being beaten by a stranger? His attempts to deescalate the situation result in his being thrown across the room. Only when Pinky brandishes nunchucks does Meng Yao finally leave. Not surprisingly, Pei Ling harangues Pinky for allowing her “meal ticket” to leave the apartment. Kudos to Du, as we “truly see” all three of these characters so clearly in this intense violent encounter.
Eva, a shy Chinese girl, is another significant person in Pinky’s journey to manhood. They clearly have crushes on each other, but obeisance to their traditions and culture keeps them respectfully at arms-length. Unfortunately immaturity in the moment manages to drive a wedge between them. At age 16, they are both in attendance at the same party. Booger, a Black friend of his who is a midget, or at least way too short to do more than dream about being the first player under three feet to play in the NBA, turns Pinky on to acid. With Pinky high for the rest of the night, Booger attempts to rape Eva in a restroom. If it weren’t for Eva channeling an Asian answer to the martial arts maven Mrs. Peel in the British TV show The Avengers, Booger would have had the upper hand. The end result is that Eva’s family, fearing for their daughter’s safety, moves away from the Tenderloin.
The other major character impacting Pinky’s way in life is Cannonball, a blues guitarist who never hit his stride to achieve fame, who mourns the loss of his young son in the Vietnam conflict, a place he feels no young Black man should have ever been. Not distinguishing one Asian race from another, he hates the young Pinky with his whole life ahead of him on sight. After Pei Ling tells Pinky she wishes she had aborted him, he goes to live in the Chickie Wah Wah Club. Cannonball and Pinky ultimately take the role of each other’s confessor. Cannonball confides, “Pinky, my life and everything I love is hiding behind me in places that I can’t see or touch no more. I want you to be a real musician. I want you to be better than me.” He urges the boy to go to college, underestimating the sway he actually has over the boy. One night Pinky raids the club’s money box to finance his cross-country bus ride to audition at Manhattan School of Music. Pinky does get accepted, only to get cut from the program within two years, leaving him with no purpose and a load of tuition debt that barely gets paid down working in a Chinese restaurant.
Pei Ling makes her way to New York. She offers Pinky an olive branch he can never accept; she has saved enough money to buy the Chinese restaurant she slaved in so she has something to finally give to Pinky. This is the same woman who threw his first guitar out a window, shattering it into countless pieces. Not having fulfilled her own desire to be a ballet dancer, she has no patience for her son’s interest in music and is content to let him wallow in the suffocating dead end of restaurant life. She does impart that Cannonball is seriously ill, information that puts him back on a Greyhound to tend to the only person that means anything to him this late in the game.
The same man that once doled out the tough love “I put you down so you have to build yourself back up” is now a mere shadow of himself. He is too weak to play the guitar on his own so Pinky holds down the chords with his left hand as Cannonball strums a song he has written for his son. After Cannonball dies, Pinky goes through the old man’s personal effects and finds a letter that was never sent. “Dear Pinky… I never believed one person could make such a difference in a man’s life until I met you. You have made me believe that hope and love exists in the darkest of places inside of me. You’re going to make your mark in this world one day. And when you play that guitar, your timing is off and you still hit the wrong damn notes. But for some reason I can hear your voice through that guitar, and it sounds honest and true…you got the passion, boy. Nobody can take that away from you. You finally understand the blues and you can play it now.” And so, he does. The performance ends with Du on solo guitar in a passionate riff on Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”
Director Craig Belknap finds every heartstring in Mr. Du’s text and pulls at it. It sometimes feels a little bit manipulative, but the passion and true heart behind the story is so sincere, we forgive willingly. Michael C. Smith’s scenic design of various-sized wooden trunks is spare, yet it fills the cavernous Downstairs Theatre at La Mama. The lighting design by Eric Norbury is consistent with the show’s minimal needs to support Du’s tale. Mimi Maxmen’s costume design is also quite simple: Du appears in a dark t-shirt, jeans and sneakers for the bulk of the show. One particular section has him as the cool kid in a hideously garish Hawaiian-style shirt complemented by an equally garish chain of an oversized dollar sign.
Little does the audience know how that fairy tale of the dragon at the beginning of the play really foreshadows the tale of the young boy creating his own sense of community. His determination to get Cannonball to love him is heartbreakingly overpowering. Wesley Du gives us in Hong Kong Mississippi a modern-day hero in an 11-year-old boy wise beyond his years.
Hong Kong Mississippi (through May 14, 2023)
The Downstairs Theater at La MaMa, 66 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.ovationtix.com
Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission