Most of my Duende plays are built around some deep conflict within the American soul. For Gunpowder Man it turned out to be the two concepts of American Exceptionalism.
Since the Revolution of 1776, Americans have collectively defined themselves as exceptional. The Founders did amazing things: they cast off rule by a king descended from a long line of kings each of whom claimed to rule by Divine Rights. Getting rid of the whole idea of kings having divine sanction was an exceptional thing to do at the time.
Having thrown off the monarchy, the Founders sat down and fought with each other until they had compromised their way to a constitution that laid out formulas for a rule of law. They chose a leader who turned down the title of king and became the first president. They divided the government into three branches, each with separate powers. And they ruled that the chief executive and all legislators had to be re-elected periodically. Another exceptional accomplishment.
The Founders’ Constitution is exceptional and magnificent, but far from perfect. Unable to deal with the “problem” of slavery, they kicked that can down the road for four-score and seven years until it exploded into our Civil War which freed the slaves but barely addressed the crimes against humanity that had been inflicted for the previous two hundred years.
Our exceptional political structure remained intact with its rule of law and its checks and balances. This, in league with the vast expanses of undeveloped land in a continent whose native population was being exterminated, laid the ground for an exceptional growth of natural resources and industrial production. The imperial impulse that had gripped Europe for over a century, provoking land grabs in every continent, could be satisfied within the borders of our own country. We didn’t even need to get our feet wet.
“Go West Young Man!”
But as the Nineteenth Century ended, we were growing more and more eager to expand beyond those borders. The opportunity arose in 1898 when we declared war on Spain (never mind how we engineered a casus belli) which we won easily and for which we claimed a vast empire stretching from Cuba and Puerto Rico to the Philippines. By this time a modified idea of exceptionalism had crept into the mix of ideas. The visionary exceptionalism of America as a land of freedom, opportunity, and the rule of law was still in play. But we also claimed to be exceptional not for what we did, but for who we are. It became okay to think that if we did something it had to be all right, simply because we had done it.
The idealistic notion of bringing our exceptional American civilization to undeveloped colonies became a cover for the practice of opening markets and natural resources to American business. The protection of American businessmen operating in the colonies was far more important than the well-being of the natives. And this was all right because America was exceptional.
Which is not to say that American idealists in and outside the government did not and do not perform essential services in medicine, education, agriculture, infrastructure, etc. throughout our sphere of influence. And throughout it all, the original exceptionalism of America as a nation of freedom, opportunity, and the rule of law has never ceased to attract the “huddled masses longing to breathe free” as well as the terrified masses longing to not be murdered.
Gunpowder Man is my exploration of this ambiguous terrain surrounding the idealistic side of American exceptionalism and the exploitative side. Though it was written twenty years ago, it has many resonances with the situation in our country in 2017. The hero, Little Tiger, is a refugee from China. Like many refugees today, her village was destroyed by a corrupt central government in the course of putting down a revolution. This was in the 1860s. Her village had heard stories about America, told by one of their own who had returned from the California Gold Rush. They learned about free speech and the rule of law. Her family sends Little Tiger and her brother off, just before the massacre of their village. They arrive in Sacramento as Charles Crocker is beginning to hire Chinese workers to build the Central Pacific Railroad. Crocker had discovered that the Chinese worked harder, for longer hours and less money, and had fewer accidents (they didn’t drink) than their Irish counterparts. One could rightly say that they were exploited, but it’s also true that they found refuge in America and were able to save enough money from their labor that after the completion of the railroad in 1869 they could start a restaurant and establish themselves in one of the many Chinatowns that took root in the American West. They are accepted by half the people in their little mountain town, which I call Sweetwater, and become members of the Unitarian Church.
By the mid-1870s America was in the middle of the Long Depression. Jobs have become scarce, and demagogues are accumulating power by blaming Chinese for the unemployment of “real” Americans. Throughout the West, Chinatowns are being burnt. I set the play in the Sweetwater Unitarian Church the morning after its Chinatown has gone up in flames. Several Chinese are dead and the rest told they will be shot if seen in town after sundown. The play begins with Little Tiger walking into her church where the people have gathered to discuss the “problem.”
She tells them a story.
Versions of that story, of hope and fear, are again being told in churches and other gathering places throughout our country. Whether the hope or the fear comes to dominate will depend on which kind of exceptionalism we choose to embrace.
You can read more about the play as well as several reviews and responses from students at: