Performance Exploring Immigration Ban is Rooted in 1929 Law Grad’s Script

A play by Harry Hom Dow, a 1929 Suffolk Law School graduate who became the first Chinese-American to pass the Massachusetts Bar exam, forms the basis of a timely theatrical presentation about the exclusion of Chinese immigrants from this country from 1882 to 1943.

Archival photo of Chinese man in Western dress, which student notes was probably sent to the man's family in China to show that he was doing well in America

Key players also include the University’s Moakley Archive, students, faculty, and a Suffolk retiree who maintains her ties as a campus volunteer.

Nutzacrackin’ Immigration and Naturalization depicts a fictional immigration interrogation after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which not only stopped immigration from China but also severely limited the rights of Chinese people already living in America. The original script was written by Dow (1904-1985), a lawyer who faced racism that eventually drove him out of his private practice in New York.

Christina R. Chan, a local actor, playwright, and director, obtained the script from the Moakley Archive and adapted it for the performance. Chan also will present a selection from the one-woman play, Unbinding Our Lives, chronicling the experience of Tien Fu Wu (1887-1975), a Chinese women in San Francisco at the turn of twentieth-century.

Presenting student research

To offer a framework of the historical period, the producers asked Suffolk students to create a PowerPoint presentation, to be projected as the audience enters the theater. The students, from Communication & Journalism Professor Micky Lee’s Research Methods in Communication class, are using the Moakley Archive’s Dow Collection and other primary sources to explore the Chinese Exclusion Act.

News clip from Boston Globe describing proposal to display two Chinese people with leprosy, which student comment likens to proposing the idea that Chinese immigration into the United States is like spreading a disease.

“The PowerPoint gives context to what theater-goers will see and hear in the stage reading,” said Lee, who had learned about the Dow play from retired Law School administrator Justina Chu.

Chu is active in the Chinese Historical Society of New England, which is presenting Nutzacrackin’, and she has helped with translating and redacting several Dow Collection documents written in Chinese so they could be posted online for researchers.  

“The play is but one connection between the Chinese Historical Society of New England and Suffolk University,” said University Archivist Julia Howington. “Since 2015, CHSNE and Suffolk’s Moakley Archive have worked together to enhance access to the Dow Collection, which sheds light on the struggles of Chinese families trying to reunite in the United States.”

Scripting a documentary

Lee’s students are preparing for careers in media or the film industry, so she is having them write a documentary script based on research and interviews and using the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act as a jumping-off point. Lee did not foresee just how much resonance the topic of immigration would have today when she planned the curriculum last year.

The class also heard about primary vs. secondary sources and how to use library, archives, and web resources to locate primary sources from Michael P. Dello Iacono of the Moakley Archive. He steered them in the right direction when they visited the archive in groups to investigate portions of their research questions using archive collections, and he helped them navigate Library of Congress, National Archives, and independent archives’ collections to find, evaluate, and use/cite relevant documents and photos.

Performances & audience engagement

Performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 17, and 2 p.m. Saturday, March 18, at the Emerson/Paramount Center, Black Box Theatre, 559 Washington St, Boston.

Lee will join Professor Ragini Shah, founder of Suffolk Law’s Suffolk's Immigration Clinic, after Friday’s performance for a panel discussion connecting this history to present-day policy, moderated by Suffolk History Professor Patricia Reeve. Shah will return for a post-performance session with the audience on Saturday.

Audience members will be asked to respond by writing key words on post-it notes for display as a word cloud. And the audience will be asked to fill out paperwork adapted from the onerous certificates of identification that Chinese residents had to carry with them during the Exclusion Act era. These documents detailed height, weight, address, and more, and trouble would ensue if a Chinese person were discovered without one.

The new certificates instead will ask “what are your dreams; who are you as a person,” said Lee.

Tickets are available online.