The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Chickencoop Chinaman opens in darkness. The audience hears sounds of a commercial jet in flight, then a man’s mischievous chuckle. Over the chuckle, a woman’s voice announces preparations for landing in Pittsburgh. An overhead spot comes on, revealing Tam Lum standing alone in a shaft of light. He describes his Hong Kong Dream Girl, and she appears onstage, a beautiful Asian in a drill-team uniform. Tam’s dream conversation with his Hong Kong Dream Girl, during his flight to Pittsburgh, constitutes scene 1 of the play. The girl wishes that Tam would do more than “pay lip service to [his] Cantonese heritage” and asks him where he was born. “Chinamen are made, not born,” Tam says. He weaves a fabulous tale of his creation as “THE NOTORIOUS ONE AND ONLY CHICKENCOOP CHINAMAN HIMSELF.” During his tale, Tam mimics various American accents and voices. Tam’s “normal” speech, according to the stage directions, employs a mixture of the rhythms and accents of black and white American English. After his creation tale, Tam tells the Dream Girl that he is “a Chinaman! A miracle synthetic!” He speaks “nothing but the mother tongues bein’ born to none of my own, I talk the talk of orphans.” Tam is about to kiss and caress his Dream Girl when he is awakened by the voice of a stewardess announcing the jet’s arrival in Pittsburgh early on a winter evening.

Scene 2 takes place in the apartment of Kenji, a research dentist and Tam’s friend since childhood. Kenji’s apartment is in the Oakland district, Pittsburgh’s black ghetto. During this scene, Tam becomes reacquainted with Kenji and meets two other major characters: Lee, a Eurasian woman whom Kenji has invited to stay in his apartment, and Lee’s twelve-year-old son, Robbie. Lee criticizes Kenji and Tam for “making fun of blacks” but expresses conventional prejudices against Oriental men: “All afraid of the pretty girls? But oh so anxious to do the right thing—avoid trouble—save face.” In this scene, though, first Kenji and then Tam reveal in monologues that since childhood their primary role models and heroes have been black men. In fact, Tam is writing and producing a film about Ovaltine Jack Dancer, a black fighter whom both he and Kenji idolized when they were young, and he is in Pittsburgh to interview Charley Popcorn, whom Tam calls Ovaltine’s “mighty daddy.”

The major conflict of act 1 is revealed through the interaction of Tam and Lee. Though attracted to each other, they disagree about racial stereotypes, manliness, and the importance of the Chinese experience in America. Tam and Kenji tell stories of growing up Oriental in California and describe their heroes. Tam criticizes ineffectual Chinese fathers and laments his own failure as man and father because of his “lack of ambition.” His deepest desire is to do something to prove himself as a man, as a Chinese, as an American. His film about Ovaltine Jack Dancer and his father is to be that thing.

The climax of act 1 is a “vocal athletic event” prompted by Tam’s parody of the Lone Ranger: The Chickencoop Chinaman. Venting their frustration, anger, fear, and self-loathing, Tam, Kenji, and Lee scream “Buck Buck bagaw,” while banging on pots and pans and leaping...

(The entire section is 1337 words.)