‘The Dance and the Railroad’: their story is our story

I know that there are some blueblood families that have been in this country since the Mayflower landed, but because so many of us are mutts descended from poor foreigners I’ve never understood the distrust and hatred between immigrant groups.

I spent the first half of  my childhood in Chicago, where the Italians didn’t get along with the Irish and the Irish resented the Polish and then everyone looked down on the Hungarian immigrants who arrived after the revolution in 1956 (in my neighborhood, they were simply known as “DPs” – for displaced persons).

It’s always been clear to me that I have been standing on the shoulders of dirt-poor ancestors who arrived here at the turn of the last century, and took whatever menial jobs they could find, hoping that their children would have better lives. So, I support the more recent immigrants from Puerto Rico and Asia and Mexico etc. who are simply playing out that old American story that eventually got my family out of the ghetto.

The Signature Theatre production of David Henry Hwang’s “The Dance and the Railroad” tells a story of Asian immigrants in which many of the details are very different from my own family’s experiences, but the striving and the dreaming and the regrets expressed by the two characters in the play were no doubt shared by my Irish and German ancestors and by everyone else who has gone into the melting pot.

The play takes place in 1867 on “a mountaintop near the transcontinental railroad” where Lone (Yuekun Wu) practices the rituals from back home in China and where Ma (Ruy Iskandar) is about to abandon them for his new life in America.

The men are among the Chinese who came here in the 19th century to build our railroads — some thinking they would just make some much needed money and then return home, and others fired up by the lives of riches and ease they’ve heard are possible for any newcomers in America.

The tight and beautifully written 80-minute play takes us inside the world of Chinese opera and martial arts as Ma begs former stage actor Lone to train him during their time off.

Lone is disliked by most of his fellow Chinese workers, who view him as snobbish and too bound to his Old World ways, but Ma would like to star as a hero in one of the classic stage pieces when he goes home.

“The Dance and the Railroad” shows us how the younger man is slowly sucked into a devotion to hard work in his new home, rather than dreams of glory back in China. Lone seems determined to remain a “foreigner” out of his fear of what assimilation will do to him.

The play has been staged simply but very stylishly by May Adrales and Iskandar and Wu are terrific.

“The Dance and the Railroad” doesn’t officially open until Feb. 25 — I caught a recent preview — but it is already in great shape and tickets are only $25.

For more information, visit www.signaturetheatre.org

Joe Meyers