It’s been more than a century since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — the first law restricting immigration to the U.S. — was passed. With Arena Stage’s new Power Play (and world premiere) award-winning playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lin (House of Cards, Clarice, Kleptocracy) is bringing it into today’s conversation as, in some ways, it’s more relevant than ever.
Chinese Exclusion Act
The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress in the spring of 1882. It was designed to be a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the United States but ended up lasting over 60 years. Not only did it affect Chinese people trying to come to America, it also placed new requirements on those who had already entered the country. The act stated that if Chinese residents left the U.S., they would have had to obtain certifications to re-enter. In addition, Congress refused state and federal courts the right to grant citizenship to Chinese resident aliens, holding the power to deport them.
Historian Erika Lee shared her family’s experience under the Exclusion Act in an interview with the Asia Society: “My grandmother, whose great-grandfather had come over during the gold rush, she had been left behind. She had been abandoned. Her father could only bring two kids with him. He brought his son and…a nephew. And because of the way exclusion laws worked, that totally barred her from any chance of coming as his daughter. So she never talked about how she did end up coming. We all knew that you just don’t ask…about her family because it was clearly very traumatic.”
Many Exclusion Act family stories ended similarly with separation and trauma.
“We must draw the line somewhere, you know.” United States, 1882. [New York: Frank Leslie] Photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. / “Exclusion” artwork by James Ransome
Lin found a clever way to bring these untold stories to light by writing Exclusion — a surprising comedy exploring what it means to tell a dark history for entertainment purposes. The second Power Play in Arena’s 2022/23 Season, and the tenth produced overall, Exclusion follows an award-winning historian who is thrilled when her best-selling book about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is optioned for a mini-series by a Hollywood mogul. However, her euphoria turns to disillusionment as she finds herself constantly defending its authenticity in the struggle between what’s true and what sells.
On Tuesday, April 4, Arena staff, trustees, and donors filled the Mac Rehearsal Hall for the production’s First Rehearsal Presentation. As everyone took a seat — eagerly waiting to hear what was in store — the creative team and cast came together for the first time to present their incredible vision for the show.