Gunpowder Man tells the story of Chinese people who fled the catastrophic end of the Taiping Rebellion, helped build the transcontinental railroad, settled in the US, and endured the racist reactions of the 1880’s.
Though the contribution of the Chinese to the Central Pacific Railroad is fairly well known, the story is a dramatic one that bears retelling. Moreover the conditions in China that did much to push the people from their homeland is less widely known here. In addition, an understanding of the anti-Asian feeling in the nineteenth century is important for students who must still grapple with the long term effects of racism in America.
Gunpowder Man addresses issues raised by several sections of theHistory-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools. The building of the railroad and the Chinese-Irish conflict are integral to understanding the whole westward movement. The play’s portrayal of conditions in China as the Qing dynasty began its precipitous decline addresses issues of World History.
Gunpowder Man is dramatic, filled with fascinating and little-known cultural and historical details, often funny, and portrays one wonderful, spunky woman’s struggles and triumphs.
It is 1882. Last night a gang of unemployed miners burned down the Chinatown in the little city of Sweetwater. They have put up signs that all Chinese must leave by noon today. Little Tiger comes into the church where she and her brother have worshiped for the past ten years. She carries everything she was able to save from the fire in two baskets. It breaks her heart to leave Sweetwater. She cannot leave till she tells her fellow parishioners who she really is. So begins her story.
She tells of being born into the Taiping movement. Her whole village embraced its primitive form of Christianity with a radical egalitarianism and belief in universal brotherhood. When villagers return from Gold Mountain (California) they realize that some core values of the American Declaration of Independence are shared by the Taipings.
But the Taiping revolution bogs down in hypocrisy and corruption. Little Tiger’s uncle and mother fall victim to the internal troubles. Her father has to flee and is never heard from again. The revolution collapses and bloody reprisals are carried out by the Imperial Army. Little Tiger’s family realizes that the young people must flee China in order to survive. Her mother’s ghost warns her that it is too dangerous to travel as a girl so she dons a disguise and goes as Happy Tiger’s little brother.
Their adventures take them to California just in time to begin work on the Central Pacific Railroad. Little Tiger is taken on as a cook for their gang and Happy Tiger is an expert in explosives. When sabotage by Irish workers injures Happy Tiger, it is the sister who must descend the cliff in a basket and set gunpowder charges in the granite face. Thus she faces and overcomes her deepest fears.
After the completion of the railroad the twins settle in Sweetwater, open a Chinese restaurant, and become more and more committed to their American home, until the Chinatown is burned down. Then Little Tiger must face the ultimate test of her beliefs in human brotherhood and equality.
- 1999 – Foothill Theatre Company, Nevada City, School tour of Sacramento Valley and Northern Mother Lode [1 act version]
- 1997 – Stage 3 Theatre, Sonora – Full length [2 act version]
- 1995 – School tour of Central Valley and Mother Lode [1 act version]
This play exists in two versions. Both versions are suitable for grades 4 and up as well as adults.
The forty-five minute version tours to schools, museums, and other venues. It can be played in virtually any space (theater, cafeteria, classroom, gym, etc.) and requires only fifteen minutes to set up.
The full-length version runs about an hour and forty-five minutes with intermission. It requires a theater with lighting and sound equipment and requires a minimum of a day to set up and run tech. The full-length version was highly successful when presented for student matinees, with the audience bussed in. Two matinees can be performed per day, or ten per week, and the play can run in rep with an evening performance of another play if the theater is equipped to turn around in four hours.
Forty-five minute version:
- Can be performed in theater, classroom, multi-purpose room, gymnasium, or out-door space.
Sound system is not required except for unusual situations.
- Special lighting is not required.
- Set up time is fifteen minutes.
- Requires a theater with light and sound system.
- Theater must provide light operator, sound operator, and all box office and house management.
Reviews and Comments
SHERMAN SPENCER, The Stockton Record, 10/13/97
“Gunpowder Man” strikingly re-creates some little known aspects of the fusion of Chinese and early California history. Once again, as in his “Heroes of Xochiquipa,” Sonora playwright Rick Foster uses a staged dramatic monologue as a microcosm for illuminating crucial historical change.
China’s Taiping Rebellion cost 20 to 30 million lives, and helped make a labor force available to build our intercontinental railroads.
Though the Chinese contribution was vital to the railroad construction, they faced violence and discrimination once the job was completed.
The principles espoused by the charismatic fomenters of the Taiping movement were a blend of an early form of communism and Protestant evangelism. These ideas, with their underlying assumption of individual worth, made the democratic United States seem the promised land for the defeated victims of the uprising.
Ironically, the rebellion collapsed due to the corruption of its leaders. And just as ironically, the Chinese refugees found in California a climate of segregation and discrimination.
Building on these ironies, playwright Foster tells the story of one such disillusioned victim, Little Tiger, a young Chinese woman.
As the play opens, she stands addressing the audience as a church congregation. All her worldly goods can be held in two large baskets after a mob burns down the restaurant she and her brother operated in Sweetwater, a Sierra gold-rush town.
She wants to tell them about the events that brought her to this point. We hear of her childhood in China, the appeal of the rebels’ cause, the slaying of her parents, the burning of her village.
In the second act, she re-creates her life in California. Disguised as a boy to get a job in railroad construction, she has to take her injured brother’s place as part of an explosives team, hence her title of “gunpowder man.”
Tricia Dong, a Los Angeles actress, does marvelous things with her role. Assuming the vocal characteristics and expressions of dozens of different characters from her small brother to an Irish cook on a neighboring work crew, she neatly captures each persona. She blends all these characterizations into a mosaic that produces a fully realized portrait of this heroic and exceptional woman.
Though the play catalogs all the tragedy and danger Little Tiger experienced, we find much evidence of her invincible good spirits and humor. In fact, in the second act, the almost lighthearted recounting of her railroad adventures stands in marked contrast to her grim childhood travails.
Foster flawlessly directs, keeping the action from ever becoming static. His set design of several movable boxes convincingly creates dozens of different milieus.
GARY LINEHAN, Sonora Union Democrat, 10/17/97
One Actress and One Playwright Add Up to One Stupendous Play at Stage 3 Theatre Company
“Gunpowder Man” written by Sonora’s own Rick Foster and starring Los Angeles actress Tricia Dong, tells the story of a young girl who flees her homeland of China with her brother in 1864. . . .
It’s a wonderful tale on many scores. The play is superbly crafted and Dong is not only extremely talented but deeply charismatic.
There are also powerful, little-told history lessons—the plight of the Chinese during the Taiping Rebellion and again in early California—all wrapped up in a fascinating human story filled with humor and drama. . . .
“Gunpowder Man” is a magnificent tale of hope and betrayal on two continents. It does not necessarily have a happy ending, but it does close on a note of optimism after Little Tiger must choose between revenge and forgiveness.
The opening night performance drew a spontaneous standing ovation from the capacity house.
LEO STUTZIN, The Modesto Bee, 10/15/97
Historical epics rarely translate well into intimate theater pieces. Rick Foster’s “Gunpowder Man” does, with remarkable effectiveness. . . .
It’s a history lesson, a touching and sometimes funny personal story, and an exhibition piece for a versatile and amazingly agile performer, Los Angeles actress Tricia Dong. . . .
Foster’s text and Dong’s vivid acting turn Little Tiger’s years with the Central Pacific into the play’s brightest segment.
Dong shifts with speed, clarity, wit and charm among many roles: She’s Little Tiger, cheerful brother Happy Tiger, railroad magnate Charles Crocker, a caustic construction foreman, an amiable Irish cook, many others.
And she gives human theatrical reality to the struggle to carve a railroad right-of-way through the High Sierra and across the desert to the junction point at Promontory, Utah. . . .
The drama documents a single life, sketches many lives and it deserves to be heard.
Comments from fourth graders who saw the full-length version:
Dear Rick Foster
I loved the play so much I want to see it again. My favorite part was when Little Tiger had to be the Gunpowder Man. It got me on the edge of my seat. Sometimes I just wanted to stand up and yell that is not fair that the Chinese were treated like that. I could see the other characters even though they were not there. When I cam back to school I could see the characters in my mind. I would love to be a play write when I grow up.
Dear Rick Foster & Tricia Dong
I think the play was exlent. Like you were there when it hapend. I dont think we should have a war. Why we don’t need them over thing like religen. I think its horible just horible rassism if one Chinese stole something they think they all do. I don’t know why. I think ther should be a law againsed rasesim. If anyone hurt or harrasses anyway they should get a fine of 200$. The second time they go to gail. The therd someone has to bale you out.
The play was great! I liked when Tricia was just one person to do the play. She made it so interesting. She has good talent. You have good taste. What I want to know is how you came up with the story? I’m not say it’s bad, it’s the best play I’ve ever seen! When did you start writing plays? But I have seen no greater play than “Gunpowder Man.”
Dear Rick Foster
I thought it was amazing how you wrote the play you must have put many hours into learning about Chinese life. One of my favorite parts was when Little Tiger was acting out the fire with the red cloth. Another one of my favorite parts was when Little Tiger as acting like the Irish men it was very funny I enjoyed the play a lot.
Dear Rick Foster
I loved the play Gunpowder Man. It was very exciting because of all the action in it with one actress. I loved how she pulled flags from the posts surrounding the stage. You wrote it with so much excitement. I liked it so much I would like to see it again with my family.
Dear Tricia Dong
I loved your performance. You made all the characters come alive. It was so surprising that you kept pulling things out of the basket. It was a funny, exciting, and sad story. Was it hard jumping on and off the pretend tree wich was really boxes? I liked the part you put gunpowder in the hole. It must be hard to memorize your lines. How long have you been an actor? Our class loved your performance. I want to see it again.
Availability and Pricing
Please contact Duende regarding production or performance rights for this play.