A cast of New York lawyers and a federal judge debuted a new production on Friday off-off Broadway — all the way in Kansas City, Mo.
Attorneys have gathered there for the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association's annual convention. For the past seven years, the meeting has featured dramatic re-enactments of historic trials involving Asian-Americans.
The latest courtroom drama by the Asian American Bar Association of New York is 22 Lewd Chinese Women. The production focuses on the 19th-century Supreme Court case Chy Lung v. Freeman, which involved a group of women from China who sailed to San Francisco without husbands or children.
California's commissioner of immigration at the time deemed them "lewd and debauched," and a state law banned the women from entering the U.S. unless each paid $500 in gold. The state law was ruled unconstitutional in 1875 by the Supreme Court, which reaffirmed that immigration laws are for Congress to decide.
Cast members recently held rehearsals for 22 Lewd Chinese Women in a 38th-floor conference room above the Hudson River at the law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft in Lower Manhattan. Some actors, too busy to leave their desks, conference-phoned in their lines, while those present, still in suits and high heels from a full day at the office, scrolled through email on their smartphones in between their scenes.
Costuming and sets are minimal. Actors stand in front of a projection of historical photos and carry scripts with them as they read their lines. But hundreds of hours are spent, often during weekends and vacations, to piece together scripts from old newspaper accounts, court transcripts and other historical documents, says attorney Kathy Chin, one of the key organizers of the productions.
Chin helps to write and narrate the re-enactments with her husband, Denny Chin, a federal judge on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"[These re-enactments are] about building awareness of how history does repeat itself," she says. "So many of the themes that we treat in these re-enactments are still very relevant today."
And these re-enactments may be coming to a stage near you. Chin says they've already received inquiries about their latest script from college theater departments in New Jersey, North Carolina and Kansas.
If you can't wait, check out some past re-enactments below.
DON GONYEA, HOST:
This week, a nontraditional courtroom drama made its debut - not on Broadway but in Kansas City, Missouri, at an annual convention of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. A group of New York lawyers and a federal judge reenacted a historic trial involving Asian-Americans. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang sat in on a rehearsal.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: High up on a 38th-floor conference room at Cadwalader Wickersham and Taft, lawyers are running through testimony.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: For what purpose did you come to California?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through Translator) She came here to marry husband. She's engaged to be married.
WANG: They're not preparing for court. Instead, they're headed to the stage.
DENNY CHIN: On August 24, 1874, after a 30-day voyage from Hong Kong...
WANG: This dramatic reading brings back to life a Supreme Court case from the 19th century. "22 Lewd Chinese Women" is the latest dramatic reenactment by the Asian American Bar Association of New York. The case focuses on a group of Chinese women traveling without husbands or children. They were deemed, quote, "lewd and debauched." And California law at the time banned them from entering the U.S. unless each paid $500 in gold. The state law was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1875. Lauren Lee is a regular cast member in the reenactments. In past performances, she's played...
LAUREN LEE: An exotic dancer. I've also played Supreme Court justices, and this time I'm playing the trial judge.
WANG: Which means she gets to wear a black robe. But for the most part, costuming and sets are minimal. Past reenactments include a trial that began in 1949.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Iva Toguri) Greetings, everybody. This is your number one enemy, your favorite playmate Orphan Ann on Radio Tokyo.
WANG: Iva Toguri was accused of treason for broadcasting propaganda on Japanese radio during World War II. GIs knew her as Tokyo Rose.
CHIN: There was a lot of unfairness in the way the proceedings were handled.
WANG: Judge Denny Chin serves on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. He's sentenced former financier Bernie Madoff. And on the side, he helps to write and narrate the reenactments, along with his wife.
CHIN: She wants to cuts my parts and I want to cut her parts.
WANG: How do you work it out?
KATHY CHIN: He says that I always win, but it's a great deal of fun.
WANG: Attorney Kathy Chin says weekends and vacations are often spent digging through old newspaper accounts, court transcripts and other historical documents to piece together scripts. So, these aren't dusty, old court cases?
CHIN: No, this is a lot about building awareness of how history does repeat itself. So many of the themes that we treat in these reenactments are still very relevant today.
WANG: And these reenactments may be coming to a stage near you. Chin says they've already received inquiries about their latest script from college theater departments in New Jersey, North Carolina, and Kansas. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GONYEA: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.