The Dance and the Railroad is a history play based on the Chinese railroad workers’ strike of 1867. It reveals a significant event in the Chinese American past, rejecting the stereotype of submissive coolies and depicting assertive men who demanded their rights in spite of great personal risk. Originally intended as a contribution toward the reclaiming of the Chinese American past, it accomplished much broader artistic goals.
Ma, a young Chinese emigrant who has been in America only four weeks, comes to warn Lone, a performer, that the other Chinese do not like his superior attitude. Hired to build the railroad across the Sierras, they are now in the fourth day of a strike against the labor practices of the “white devils.” The Chinese have demanded an eight-hour workday and a fourteen-dollar-a-week increase in pay. Lone is estranged from the other Chinese because he refuses to waste time drinking and gambling and instead practices the traditional Chinese opera. Captivated by Lone’s beautiful dance, Ma decides to become a performer when he returns to China a wealthy man. Lone scoffs at Ma’s naïve beliefs that America is a place with a mythical Gold Mountain, that his cheating Chinese coworkers are his friends, and that he will ever be able to portray the great Gwan Gung, god of fighters. Lone tells Ma that if he is to succeed he must face reality and willingly accept being shunned by the “already dead” Chinese men. Undaunted by this challenge, Ma begins to practice Chinese opera. Ma is subsequently shocked, however, to learn that if he works hard, he might successfully portray the Second Clown. Lone reveals how he spent eight years in opera school training to play Gwan Gung, only to be “kidnapped” by his parents and sent to the Sierras to work. Ma is determined and practices by spending the night in the “locust” position, a metaphor for the emigrant awakening. Lone returns, reporting that the strike is over. The Chinese have achieved their eight-hour day but only an eight-dollar-a-week raise. Ma finally realizes that, although a few Chinese men in America might achieve their dreams, most become dead to China. Ma and Lone improvise a Chinese opera revealing their voyages to America and experiences on the Gold Mountain. When the mountain fights back, Lone is exhilarated but Ma falls, his spirit broken. Now a realist, Ma returns to work with the “already dead” men, while Lone continues practicing for the Chinese opera.
David Henry Hwang contrasts two portraits of emigrant Chinese becoming Americans. Ma loses his innocence, discards his traditions, and joins the “already dead” laborers. Lone adapts Chinese mythology and tradition to his American experience. The Asian community has lauded Hwang’s work, praising its depiction of the lives of Chinese Americans.