History Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, operates on a mission to produce theatrical works that examine the true stories and real people of Minnesota, unearthing stories we otherwise would never hear of—stories like Harry Chin’s.
During the Chinese Exclusion Act—a 60-year period when the U.S. banned immigration of Chinese laborers and anti-Chinese Americans forced Chinese Americans out of their communities—Chin entered the U.S. via forged papers. Known as a “paper son,” Chin experienced a violent detention and interrogation that led him to a double life of secrecy once freed.
Playwright Jessica Huang discovered Chin’s past while searching for the subject of her History Theatre commission at the Minnesota Historical Society. “I knew that I really wanted to write about the Chinese Exclusion Era because it was a period of history that I never studied in school but as I've grown to hear about how it had an enormous impact that was decades long, it felt like a missing piece of my understanding and the understanding of our collective history,” says Huang. When she stumbled upon Chin’s testimony, she discovered her foundation.
She reached out to Sheila, Harry’s daughter, in 2015 and the play—while grounded in the way “this political action impacted their personal lives”—morphed into a story about fathers and daughters.
Set in 1970, the play opens on the anniversary of the death of Sheila’s mother, Laura, who returns as a ghost to visit Sheila and Harry.
“Somebody once described my work as ‘the supernatural in the everyday’ and I think that I sort of exist inside of that realm naturally as a person,” says Huang, who is of Jewish and Chinese heritage. “The benevolent visitations or hauntings from my ancestors, those are things that I feel like I have a familiarity with. In my world view there is a place for ghostly presences.”
But Huang’s piece is a spiritual ghost story. “There's a line in a play that says, ‘haunting is helping.’ Sometimes that's a painful thing when we have to reckon with the things that haunt us, whether they're literal ghosts or more figurative but when we unpack and reveal and come to terms with the things that have happened to us, that's when we can start to heal from it.”
The play made the annual Kilroy’s List in 2017 and was recently showcased in a developmental reading at Vassar College & New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater ahead of its upcoming production at Indiana Repertory Theatre in March 2020.
The current climate is ripe for a re-examination of this drama that unearths another time of racism and xenophobia in American history—as Broadway’s Allegiance did when it dramatized the story of the Japanese internment camps—and calls upon audiences to confront issues of immigration, nationalism, and its consequences.
Revisiting the work has allowed Huang to merge the intuitive writing style of her early career with the technique she’s honed through a MacDowell Fellowship, two Playwrights’ Center fellowships, and having her work produced by New York Theatre Workshop, Atlantic Theatre Company, and more.
Huang considers this Powerhouse reading a restoration of Paper Dreams. With any luck, she’ll also reveal a piece of American history that, while it haunts us, will also heal.