Citizen Wong

If you seriously care about equal rights, you should know about 王清福!

By Andrew Andrews

Whit K. Lee stars as Wong Chin Foo in Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s production of Richard Chang’s Citizen Wong at The Mezzanine at A.R.T./New York Theatres in Hell’s Kitchen. Original photos by John Quincy Lee.

When you think of civil rights leaders, the name Wong Chin Foo probably doesn't come to mind.

But in the late 1800s, Wong—one of America’s first citizens from China—fought for the rights of Chinese immigrants when they were under attack from a government and population that labeled Asians as “heathen, job-stealing rats.”

After launching New York City’s weekly Chinese American newspaper in 1883, Wong founded the first association of Chinese American voters and the Chinese Equal Rights League to fight Chinese Exclusion.

Bringing Wong’s story to life, playwright Richard Chang details a narrative of Wong's activism through a dramatized romance with the daughter of a fictitious American railroad tycoon.

At times dabbling in traditional Chinese theater, wǔxiá and western avant gardism, Citizen Wong depicts the hero as a charismatic orator, performer and lover.

Bonnie Black and Sandy York (not shown), Nick Jordan, Shing Chung, Lee (as Monkey King), Scott Klavan and Malka Wallick complete the cast, directed by Ernest Abuba and Chongren Fan.

Wong Chin Foo’s biography deserves to be told, and with the recent return of anti-Asian sentiments to America in general and New York City in particular, this is certainly an appropriate time to bring it to our attention.

The script is backed by countless hours of research and years of development, but while an attempt has been made to portray Wong as a larger-than-life yet very human character, I felt that the story more often feels like a jazzed-up history lesson than a drama.

The overall quality of the production falls somewhere between community and off-off-Broadway; for example, some of the actors are much better than others, and at times the costume differences were too subtle to distinguish the many double roles.

Simply stated, I don’t believe Citizen Wong is worth $60 a seat in its current incarnation, and I’ve seen much better shows lately for less than half that price. But wait for it to churn through a few more workshops and it might become as entertaining as it is educational.

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Andrew Andrews attended Citizen Wong at A.R.T./New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre in Manhattan on Thursday, April 14, 2022 @ 7:00pm to write this review.