ABOUT RICHARD CHANG
Richard Chang (张德胜) blends genres based on solid research to tell neglected stories, reflecting his background as a journalist and performer in Asian and Western theater, dance and opera; puppetry and improv comedy.
His solo comedy Goy Vey! Adventures of a Dim Sun in Search of his Wanton Father debuted at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre. At the Leeds (UK) International Jewish Performing Arts Festival, the Leeds Jewish Telegraph declared Goy Vey! as the "Greatest Show in Festival's History". Other works include Ah Chew! Drama of a Diva Mama, and News to a Muse: A Farcedy of Terrors. Richard co-wrote and co-directed Chinese Theatre Works' (CTW) Climbing the Gold Mountain at Abron Arts Center.
As an actor, he has also appeared in productions by Pan Asian Rep, CTW, Goodwin Theatre (Hartford, Connecticut), NY Fringe Festival and Midtown Theatre Festival. Screen roles include New York, I Love You, Windhorse, Saving Face, Never Forever, Chasing America, Return to Paradise; Cantonese Style, No Menus Please, and NBC-TV series Kidnapped.
Richard has received awards from the Queens Council on the Arts and Puffin Foundation, and has been an Urban Artist Initiative/New York City fellowship recipient.
Q: How did this project come about?
A: My acting agent sent me to do a voiceover for Bill Moyers’ “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience” in 2003. I was assigned Wong Chin Foo’s voice (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1f2xi5xt1i0). When I saw the excerpt, I couldn’t believe that this 19th century Chinese-American Martin Luther King, Jr., known throughout America during his lifetime, had disappeared from history.
I told the producer someone should write a script about him. He said, “Do me a favor. Wait till the documentary is out first.” As if it would be that easy!
Q: Why did it take so long to write?
A: There were huge gaps in the records of Wong’s life. I wanted to create a fictional drama solidly based on facts. It was only in 2013 that I discovered that he had a great-great grandson. He emailed me Wong’s letters to his son. I met him in Beijing and visited the places in Shandong province where Wong lived.
It also happened that a complete biography on Wong (http://firstchineseamerican.com/) was about to be published, largely based on about 3,000 articles on him that were now available on the Library of Congress website (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/)!
Q: What was your process?
A: I started by writing a movie because people need to see Wong in context - a virile, articulate Chinese leading man in Victorian America. The idea alone is radical. But producing a film is costly. So I decided to write a play first, also to give many actors the chance to take on a virtuosic Asian-American role, something that does not exist in U.S. literature.
I have been working on it in Pan Asian Repertory Theater’s (http://www.panasianrep.org/) Acting/Writing workshops since 2004. I grew up speaking Cantonese in Malaysia, but I'm totally schooled in English, so I studied Chinese to get into Wong’s head. I wrote with translation in mind because people in China also need to know this hero.
Q: What stage are you at now?
A: Coming up with the title, “Citizen Wong,” in early 2017 helped me sharpen the focus. I decided to include the landmark 1898 lawsuit, United States versus Wong Kim Ark, in which the Supreme Court ruled that anyone born in the country is a citizen. This case is especially poignant now that history is repeating itself. So "Citizen Wong" refers to two Americans, one who's naturalized and one born in California.
The play is an unusual mix of genres - a Victorian period drama with Chinese opera (Wong’s fictional hero is the fabled Monkey King, whose rebellious nature he identifies with), and a Greek chorus (representing the masses). There’s also music, including the Largo theme from the “New World Symphony” by Antonin Dvorak. Wong possibly met him at the 1893 Columbian World Expo in Chicago, which inspired his musical vision for a New World.
Q: How can you squeeze all this into a play?
A: You distill the essence into a tight structure with just enough detail for audiences to explore on their own. I want to present the arc of Wong’s life in a capsule, since he is unknown to the general public.
Q: What’s the story?
A: It’s an interracial romance with characters who represent the major themes in Wong’s life. It’s about how east-west, yin-yang, male-female struggle to come together as equals, in harmony, without bias.
Wong’s lover is Eliza, a wealthy married suffragette. She personifies the many European women who married Chinese men during that period. Her railroad tycoon-politician father is based on Leland Stanford, who favored Chinese labor until the political tide supported building an anti-Chinese wall. Her mother typifies the hypocritical Christian that Wong lashed out against.
Tom Lee, Wong’s real-life good friend, was a New York deputy sheriff and mob boss of Chinatown. Madame Helena Blavatsky, the reigning New Age guru, introduced Wong to the press and arranged a nationwide lecture tour for him. California-born Wong Kim Ark, who faced deportation, treats Wong as a surrogate father.
There are many other factual and plot surprises.
Q: What are your goals for “Citizen Wong”?
A: I want to create a powerful script that’s so good that mainstream theaters would have no choice but to produce it, and which would be required reading in American history and literature.
I want the play - and eventual movie - to decisively smash stereotypes, shatter bigoted arguments about minorities and women, and create a paradigm shift. All this, in the spirit of Wong Chin Foo, who deserves his rightful place in American and Chinese history.
I decided that if it took my entire life to achieve that through this work, I would.