When Gong Lum’s Legacy opened at an off-Broadway theater in March, it marked Charles White ’72’s first fully staged full-length production as a playwright and Eric Yang ’17’s debut as an actor in New York City.
The Princetonians did not know each other before Yang showed up at an open casting call in January. White immediately felt Yang was right for the lead role in Gong Lum’s Legacy, which grapples with issues of race, forbidden love, and prejudice in the Mississippi Delta during the 1920s. Yang portrays Joe, a Chinese immigrant who falls in love with Lucy, a Black schoolteacher, defying the unwritten rules of the Jim Crow South. The backdrop of the play is Lum vs. Rice, a legal fight for Chinese youngsters to attend an all-white school in Mississippi that was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927.
White’s play explores a little-known chapter of 19th-century American history, when the owners of cotton plantations in Mississippi and other Southern states recruited Chinese immigrants to work in the fields. They were to take the place of the Black men who had been freed from slavery during Emancipation. Later, many of these Chinese men opened grocery stores in small towns. In the play, which is being performed at the Theatre at St. Clements, Joe and Lucy work in one of those stores.
Landing the role of Joe prompted Yang to quit the corporate job he had held since graduating. “I did a few plays at Princeton, but I said to myself, ‘It’s so hard to be an actor, and doubly hard if you look like me,’” says Yang, who is Chinese-American and majored in economics with a concentration in theater. “So I took a corporate job.” He has been doing voice-over work on the side for animation and commercials, and recently landed a part in a play to be produced as a podcast. He plans to pursue acting full time.
White also comes to the arts after a corporate career. He adored his creative writing classes at Princeton, but “I was programmed to be a doctor or a lawyer,” he says. “That was the way I had been imprinted by my parents.” After law school at New York University, he took a position as a corporate lawyer. In the late 1990s, he attended a book signing for novelist Wilfred Sheed, who taught White during the year he served as a visiting lecturer at Princeton. When the two men chatted after the reading, Sheed asked White if he was still writing. “I said, ‘No, I’m a lawyer.’ And he said, ‘You’ve got to start writing again,’” White recalls.
In 2010, White signed up for a playwriting workshop at New Federal Theatre, which was founded in 1970 to promote the voices of women and people of color. Over the last few years, while continuing his law career, he has written several plays, including The DePriest Incident, which won the 2021 Diverse Voices Playwriting Initiative. That play also centers on historical events, specifically a controversy over an African-American woman being invited to tea with the first lady at the White House in 1929.
White did extensive research for Gong Lum’s Legacy, including visiting the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum, where he studied photos of Chinese grocery stores and other artifacts. His goal is to write plays that “tell untold stories about people of color,” he says. “There are lots of stories that need to be told.”
To Yang, the romantic relationship at the heart of the play, which runs until April 24, is as groundbreaking as its historical setting. “Chinese men and Black women have not historically been romantic leads,” Yang says. “An Asian character having a love interest — that’s pretty refreshing.”