I only occasionally mention my work in grad school in this space because it has little to do with theater. Or at least that was the case until this semester. My general focus in school is the cultural interface between America and China, an area I’ve been fascinated with for many years. This semester my class was 19th century American history and we students were challenged to study original source material from the 1800s, you know, like a real historian.
As my classmates combed through census data and Civil War diaries and such, I came across a collection of 19th century American plays that featured Chinese characters (it’s called “The Chinese Other” by Dave Williams, if you are at all interested). It was astounding. Chinese immigrants first started arriving in America after the Gold Rush in 1849 – many were recruited by the railroads and Chinese laborers made up the majority of crews that built the western leg of the transcontinental railroad (remember seeing any Asian folks in that famous “Golden Spike” picture? No, me neither). Around 1870, many plays started being written about frontier life and they often depicted Chinese immigrants in the most demeaning and hateful ways. Many are portrayed as barely human.
I found some research that talked about these depictions but little of what I read said anything about how other minorities were depicted at the same time. That became the focus of my research. To use a classic higher education word, I wanted to “contextualize” the portrayal of the Chinese within the racial culture of the time. I put the final touches on the paper just last night and what I am concluding is, as backward and racist as the perception of the Chinese was as exhibited in these plays, it was no worse and in some ways better than that of Native Americans and African Americans. Indians were depicted as irredeemably savage and blacks were still characterized by the numerous stereotypes that had been established and reinforced by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (Just as an aside, Cabin is arguably the most popular play of all time, being adapted into several stage versions that played in various cities from 1852 through the end of the century and that toured nationwide. UCT was adapted into one of the first ‘full length’ – that is, 10-14 minutes long – silent movies made 1903).
Anyway, it’s amazing to me the extent to which issues of race continue to play out throughout our culture, on stage and off both nationwide and locally. Some of you may have heard about the recent incident of a representation of an African American found hung in effigy at University of Richmond. It seems significant that this effigy was found in one of the campus theaters. It’s reprehensible that this kind of behavior persists. The only positive I can see in the whole thing is the aggressive stance the University is taking on the situation, including holding a “teach in” yesterday to discuss the history and meaning of lynching in the United States. Some of the response has been organized by Chuck Mike who some of you may be familiar with. His theater program -- Theatre for Social Change -- has been doing some very interesting work and supporting many challenging productions, including the recent production of “The Meeting” that runs through this weekend.
If you want to read about how far we’ve come – or maybe not? – I’m happy to send my paper to anyone interested. It’s 35 pages of sometimes dense verbiage but for a student of theater, I think it’s pretty interesting reading. Let me know.