Director Elizabeth Van Dyke Rehearsals of the New Federal Theatre’s “Gong Lum's Legacy” Credit: Chloé LaBorde photos

Theater is supposed to reflect what is happening in society, and one of the things that I have always loved about Woodie King’s New Federal Theatre (NFT) is that for 52 years, it has relished the opportunity to do just that. NFT has always specialized in being a place that spotlights the creations of women and people of color and focuses on telling our stories. Now, it is focusing on telling a story that happened in 1925, which dealt with a forbidden love between a Black teacher and a Chinese businessman in the Mississippi Delta. The play, “Gong Lum’s Legacy,” written by Charles L. White, with direction by Elizabeth Van Dyke, who is also NFT’s new producing artistic director, will begin performances Thursday, March 24, at the Theatre at St. Clements at 423 W. 46th St.

Van Dyke recently took the time to speak to the AmNews about “Gong Lum’s Legacy.” Discussing what attracted NFT to this play, the director shared, “The backdrop of the play is Lum vs. Rice, which was a case in 1925-1927. It was a Chinese man who wanted to send his daughter to an all-white school in the Mississippi Delta and fought for it in the courts. We found out there was a large Asian population in the Mississippi Delta. The slaves were freed and they had the Asians picking cotton. Then Asians started owning stores. The Blacks were sharecroppers indebted to the farmers. I love history and especially Black history because our history is so rich and varied and we have just endured and overcome so much. Then I saw the intersectionality of ours and the Chinese culture. In the case of Lum vs. Rice, in the city of Rosedale they won, then in the state of Mississippi they lost, in the Supreme Court they lost. So only whites could go to white schools. It was really for me the history and intersectionality of the two cultures. Fast forward today where there’s Asian hate and people being killed for being Black. There’s just an intersectionality of the two races and cultures that was fascinating to me.”

When one thinks of Jim Crow, one associates discrimination against Black people, but this play shows that Chinese people and anyone non-white faced similar problems. Looking at how relevant this is, given what’s happening in the world right now, Van Dyke broke this society down. “I think in our country, founded on a division—the Confederates States of America and the United States of America—Confederates states were white and white was superior. And the United States was willing to allow verbally equality for all. In this country whites are superior by birth and any person of another culture is inferior. That is what is rooted into this country, that is what is trying to be rooted into the psyche—that a white child is privileged at birth. It changes, but does it change at its very core. We think we are going forward and we are, but then it rears its head again and again. It’s extraordinary that so many things we think are historical haven’t changed. In ‘Wedding Band’ set in 1918, they talk about you don’t talk to the police, that was in 1918 and it’s still relevant to today. Maybe some difference, but the problem still exists.”

Addressing what she wants the audience to experience, the director remarked, “You always want to move an audience. You want them blown away by an experience. You want it to be provocative, thought-provoking, enlightening, see themselves in it. To have a full visceral sanctified experience, that’s what you pray for.”

This play is historically based and that takes it to a whole new level. Van Dyke explained, “History, it’s people. They are working at living their lives. In Gong Lum’s case he took a stand, he wanted to send his daughters to a white school. And it is taking a stand that became historical after the fact. The Chinese, the sharecroppers, they didn’t think they were making history, they were living the lives they were dealt. We’re making history with COVID, we’re not trying to make history. The play also goes through the great flood in history in 1827. We look back at the people, what they endured, how they endured it and we see pieces of ourselves. We hear a bit of the blues and it fills us, it kind of makes us whole. History is people living life and enduring the times. When this is written they’re gonna say we lived through the war and COVID. We’re just trying to live.”

With Van Dyke taking on the responsibility of being the producing artistic director of NFT, she hopes for blessings. “New Federal Theatre has an incredible, unprecedented, rich legacy and I want to honor that legacy, remember that legacy and build on that legacy. I’m the bridge to the past, the present and the future. The mission continues to be to integrate people of color, minorities and women. Now you could go out of Julliard and get into a television series—Blacks, people of color and women. It’s not necessarily equitable. We have done this institution, Black Spectrum Theatre, Pan Asian Repertory, all of those have paved the way for the young artists of color. Is it equal yet? No. There are some people who need that launch, the place, that home. We need the Black Theatre—it’s through our own experience, our own lens. We need equity in terms of funding to do the work, produce well, live well and pay well.

Considering running the theater and being a Black woman, Van Dyke commented, “I have to give credit to Woodie King Jr., because we’re talking about in 1970, that a part of his mission was women and he has always championed and given women opportunity. One of his earlier plays was by J.E. Franklin, directed by Shaneille Perry, who directed 30 productions at NFT. He gave me opportunities to direct, he gave Pearl Cleage a platform. Woodie King has paved a way and recognized a person’s ability when they didn’t see it in themselves. So, he nurtured so many women directors and playwrights. I’m learning to walk in my full power and womanhood. Part comes from my mother passing in 2018, I’ve been blessed my entire life with fulfilling a life in the theater, to live an artist’s life to create. In doing so you endure, you have strength, tenacity. I continue the passion for the art, the love of my people, the love of great, great theater and I am a woman. I’m walking strongly with faith, commitment and an open heart. We do what we have to do with sense. I want everybody to come out and see this play and support. Keep our institutions thriving.”

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