To commemorate Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, now in its 45th season, is presenting the world premiere of Citizen Wong, a new play by Richard Chang, for a limited engagement at Off-Broadway’s A.R.T./New York Theatres. It’s a look back at history and an examination of Asian and American relations that is especially timely now, with the horrifying rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.
The fictionalized historical epic is set in the 1870s-90s, at a time of deep racial divide, when pioneering 19th-century journalist and socio-political activist Wong Chin Foo, known as “the first Chinese American,” devoted himself to championing the rights of Chinese people in America and fighting the only US law ever to ban any race or ethnicity from the country. He also founded The Chinese American weekly newspaper in NYC and bought a Chinese theater, in his efforts to promote Chinese culture.
Through short vignettes set in both the US and China, the play, co-directed by Ernest Abuba and Chongren Fan, presents key episodes in the life and mission of the real-life character, then conflates them with theatrical scenes of the ancient Chinese mythological legend of the Monkey King and a fictional storyline of an illicit affair with the progressive daughter of the wealthy industrialist, politician, and railroad tycoon Leland Stanford (a robber baron who exploited Chinese laborers).
And there are other historical characters inserted into the mix, including Irish-born labor leader Denis Kearney, socialite Alva Vanderbilt, and “citizen” Wong Kim Ark (who was at the center of a landmark 1898 decision by the US Supreme Court, giving citizenship to children born in the US of Chinese parents), which often confuse the story and add unneeded inaccuracies to the play’s interesting factual biographical basis, but are used to personify the struggles with xenophobia.
The cast is led by Whit K. Lee as the titular Wong Chin Foo, who sometimes makes witty critical comments about the rampant racial inequities and sometimes angrily rails against them, and the Monkey King, who performs some traditional dexterous feats. Supporting him are Malka Wallick as his love interest Eliza Stanhope, with Scott Klavan, Nick Jordan, Shing Chung, and Sandy York (filling in well for Bonnie Black on the date I attended), each playing multiple featured roles.
A beautiful transportive artistic design evokes the era and cultures, with a Chinese-inspired set by You-Shin Chen, projections by Lacey Erb, and lighting by Leslie Smith, character-appropriate period-style costumes by Karen Boyer, and sound by Joseph Wolfslau (which enhances the situations and moods, but occasionally suffers from staccato breaks).
While many aspects of this debut production of Citizen Wong are problematic, it is most effective in engendering interest in the true eponymous subject and encouraging viewers to follow up on the theme with additional research about the man, his times, and his contributions and legacy, and to stop the recurrent bigotry now.
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, without intermission.
Citizen Wong plays through Sunday, May 1, 2022, at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, performing at the Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $60), go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter the building and must wear a mask when inside.