The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Dance and the Railroad is based on a historical incident in which Chinese railway workers went on strike to protest unfair conditions while helping construct the transcontinental railroad. In five numbered scenes the play depicts the evolving relationship of two young Chinese workers through the last seven days of the strike.

In scene 1, eighteen-year-old Ma arrives on the mountaintop to warn twenty-year-old Lone that other Chinese workers (90 percent of the Central Pacific Railroad’s builders were Chinese) disapprove of his antisocial behavior in leaving the group to ascend the mountain by himself. Unfazed by Ma’s warnings, Lone scorns comradeship with fellow workers and continues his solitary habits. He is practicing for the profession of Chinese opera, a demanding art form combining acrobatics, dancing, singing, and acting.

In the second scene, Ma returns to the mountaintop to forgive Lone his earlier rebuff. Lone rejects Ma’s gesture; however, he demurs to Ma’s new wish to train for the opera under him. In making his request, Ma reveals his triple immaturity: his desire to play the lead opera role of the patron god of warriors and adventurers, Gwan Gung; his grandiose ideas of finding success in “Gold Mountain” (from the Cantonese term Gam Saan, which immigrant Chinese used for California and America); and his gullibility in believing fellow workers’ lies about “warm snow,” the pleasures of working, and the salary bonuses they expect at year’s end. The more experienced and skeptical Lone offers Ma a gift of dice to play the Chinese game of die su. However, Ma will not be deterred from becoming Lone’s apprentice, so Lone provisionally accepts him as a student. Lone says that the training proves life through elected labor, as opposed to the work gang’s “death” in whites’ forced labor. (Historically, 10 percent of the twelve thousand Chinese who worked on the railways in the West died.)

In the third scene, Ma is already becoming impatient to play Gwan Gung. However, Lone says that he should aspire only to play the opera role of Second Clown and reveals his own story. He was sold to a Chinese opera company when he was ten and endured eight years of harsh conditions with eighty other boys in training. At...

(The entire section is 940 words.)