Much has been written (and, especially lately, staged) about marginalized people's troubled relationships with the non-marginalized. But what about the relationships of different marginalized groups with each other? When a young Chinese immigrant falls for an ambitious Black schoolteacher, his father is shocked. Why can't he marry his Chinese cousin and try to assimilate into American culture? After all, his uncle Gong Lum is currently involved in a Supreme Court case deciding whether or not his daughters can attend a white school. Maybe things are changing for the Chinese in America.
Charles L White's Gong Lum's Legacy, directed by Elizabeth Van Dyke and presented by Woodie King Jr.'s New Federal Theatre in association with The Peccadillo Theater Company, is a charming, often tense interracial love story set in Jim Crow Mississippi. While it doesn't shy away from the race issues of its setting, its strength comes from the intimate portraits it provides of historically marginalized people and the dynamic, delicate nature of their relationships.
Joe Ting, newly arrived from China and still inwardly fuming over his treatment at Angel Island, has come to America lugging his own secrets, but for the moment, it's enough to have a roof over his head and a good job at his father's department store. Lucy Sims is a little more ambitious: she's saving up enough money to return to Tougaloo College and finish her studies. Well played by Eric Yang and DeShawn White, respectively, both are compelling characters in their own right, but if one thing's missing, it's the nugget of their romance. Joe seems overeager to marry, while Lucy goes from starkly opposed to his attentions in one scene to granting him (admittedly tame, on-the-cheek) kisses in the next.
But in spite of its flaws, and perhaps because it knows its limits, Gong Lum's Legacy succeeds as a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre. One thing that certainly helps is Anthony Goss as Lucy's brother Melvin. Intent on getting his own barber shop and convinced Lucy's marriage to a well-off Chinese man will help, Melvin encourages Joe's courtship in one of the play's most entertaining scenes, and even gives him (read: subjects him to) a free haircut to boost his chances. But even with the support of Lucy's brother, her relationship with Joe feels dangerous.
Because the truth is, even if whites never make an appearance in the play, they're still overwhelmingly present, if not as characters, as hard lines boxing the others in. And since it's a narrow box, it's hard to coexist inside. Why doesn't Mr. Ting want his son to marry a Black woman? Not necessarily because he's racist and not just because he wants to carry on the Chinese tradition, but because he knows marrying a Black will restrict Joe's rights even further. In an eat-or-be-eaten world, each character must decide whether to sacrifice personal happiness for half a chance at a better future, or whether they can afford to make personal decisions based on love alone.
Gong Lum's Legacy runs through April 24 at Theatre @ St. Clements. For more info and to purchase tickets, see the link below: