Chatting with GONG LUM’S LEGACY Star Henry Yuk

Lia Chang and Henry Yuk on the set of GONG LUM’s LEGACY at Theatre @ St. Clements in New York. Photo by Victor En Yu Tan

I recently visited with my pal, Henry Yuk, who is currently starring as Charlie Ting in the World Premiere of Gong Lum’s Legacy by Charles L. White (2021 Diverse Voices Playwriting Initiative winner; semifinalist in the 2019 Blue Ink Playwriting Award Competition) at Theatre @ St. Clements (423 West 46th Street New York, NY 10036), with Anthony T. Goss, Alinca Hamilton, Eric Yang, and DeShawn White. Opening night is set for Mar. 31 and performances will continue through Apr. 24.

Standing: Henry Yuk, Eric Yang, Anthony T. Goss; seated: DeShawn White and Alinca Hamilton on the set of GONG LUM’s LEGACY at Theatre @ St. Clements in New York. Photo by Lia Chang

Directed by Elizabeth Van Dyke (The Talk at EST; Great Men of Gospel at NFT) with Associate Director Dan Wackerman (Artistic Director of the Obie, Lucille Lortel, and Drama Desk Award-winning Peccadillo Theater Company), Gong Lum’s Legacy is produced by Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre in association with The Peccadillo Theater Company.

Henry Yuk. Photo by Lia Chang

The son of immigrants from Guangdong Province, Henry Yuk was born and raised in Brooklyn, where he lives today. He graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in English and Education. His introduction to theater came when his drama teacher at Midwood High School got him involved in “Sing,” a NYC high school performance program. However, his early career was in education and childcare, first teaching at three Brooklyn public schools and subsequently directing a Chinatown day care center for 6 years.

Yuk returns to New Federal Theatre having appeared in a production of Genny Lim’s Paper Angels, a play about the journey of Chinese immigrants, paper sons, in coming to America, helmed by John Lone in 1982. He has worked extensively with Pan Asian Rep (including Yellow Fever, Teahouse, Yellow Is My Favorite Color), as well as with NAATCO (The Cherry Orchard, You Can’t Take It With YouAwake and Sing!) and Ma-Yi Theatre Company (The Square, No Foreigners Beyond This Point). His film work includes Brooklyn Lobster with Danny Aiello, Kundun (directed by Martin Scorsese) and the cult classic The Last Dragon.

Fredric Mao as Du Yi, Michael G. Chin as Lu Yi and Henry Yuk as Hu Yi in THE LAST DRAGON (1985)

His TV work includes “The Sopranos,” “Cosby,” various Law and Order episodes, Hai-Qing Yang in Marvel’s “Iron Fist”, Long Zii in “Warrior” on Cinemax, and most recently, “The Equalizer”. www.henryyuk.com

Standing: Lighting Designer Victor En Yu Tan, DeShawn White, Henry Yuk, Alinca Hamilton, Eric Yang, Anthony T. Goss; seated: Director Elizabeth Van Dyke and Playwright Charles L. White on the set of GONG LUM’s LEGACY at Theatre @ St. Clements in New York. Photo by Lia Chang

Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South, Gong Lum’s Legacy takes place in 1924 in the Mississippi Delta where an unexpected romance blooms between Joe Ting (Eric Yang), a Chinese Immigrant and Lucy Sims (DeShawn White), a Black school teacher.

Yuk play’s Joe’s father, Charlie, who is adamantly opposes their relationship. When Charlie’s friend, Gong Lum sues the local school board to permit his daughters to attend a white school, Charlie is confident that Lum will prevail and that Chinese people will soon have the same rights as whites. Charlie does not want those rights jeopardized by his son being romantically involved with a Black woman, and does everything in his power to separate the young couple.

Lum v Rice, an actual civil rights case, eventually reached the Supreme Court which ruled that the exclusion on account of race of a child of Chinese ancestry from a public school did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The decision effectively approved the exclusion of any minority children from schools reserved for whites.

Below is my interview with Henry.

Henry Yuk. Photo by Lia Chang

Lia: Who do you play and how long has your character been in the US?
Henry: I play Charlie Ting, a Chinese immigrant who came to the US as a 21 year old in 1885 and has been in the country for 40 years. At least, this is how I developed his background.

Lia: What drew you this play and this part?
Henry: The play touches on historical events and provides a look into a period of time in American history that isn’t very well known; the Supreme Court case in 1927 of Gong Lum v Rice, Chinese grocers in the Mississippi Delta, the conditions of life in the Delta for the rural residents, both African American and Chinese during the Jim Crow era. In particular, the Gong Lum case to desegregate white schools is virtually unknown even amongst lawyers, and the presence of Chinese in Mississippi working as grocers from late 1800’s into the 1900’s is another example of little known American history. I found those facts incredibly fascinating and edifying. Charlie is a character who is written as a whole person, with thoughts and values and points of view that are completely unlike my own. He is the antagonist in the play, but not a villain. I also enjoyed working on the Southern / Mississippi accent.

Playwright Charles L. White and Henry Yuk on the set of GONG LUM’s LEGACY at Theatre @ St. Clements in New York. Photo by Lia Chang
Virginia Wing. Photo by Lia Chang

Lia: How did you do the research for this part?
Henry: I read some source material particularly about the Chinese in Mississippi, about Gong Lum, watched some documentary work about the Chinese and spoke at length about life in the Delta with my friend Virginia Wing who up grew there. I especially wanted to listen to her speak just like a typical Southern belle.

Lia: What would you like audiences to come away from watching this show?
Henry: I would like audiences to come away with a greater understanding of American history that has been ignored, and the effects of the societal, cultural and legal constraints that Americans have lived through and still endure. This play is about interpersonal relationships and cultural clashes. These issues still resonate today.

Lia: What was the last theater production you were in?
Henry: The last show I was in was Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets, a NAATCO production at the Public Theater in 2015. An American classic about a Jewish family in the Bronx in the 1930’s played by an all Asian American cast.

Sanjit De Silva, Mia Katigbak, Henry Yuk and James Saito in a scene from NAATCO’s revival of Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing!” (Photo credit: William P. Steele)

Lia: What was the last show you did at St. Clements?
Henry: The last show I did at St. Clement’s was Pan Asian Rep’s production of Once is Never Enough by Rick Shiomi in 1985.

Lia: How did you manage during the pandemic?
Henry: Like most everybody, stayed close to home, ordered Fresh Direct and had Zoom dinners with friends which has been a very pleasant discovery.

Lia: Were you affected by any of the anti-Asian violence during the course of the Pandemic and now?
Henry: I fortunately have not had any incidents personally, but it has certainly been unsettling and infuriating hearing about all the incidents that we know of, and being promulgated by politicians and those so inclined to belittle, malign and scapegoat Asian Americans.

Lia: You recently appeared in an episode of CBS’s “The Equalizer” which focused on an Asian American hate crime. What was it like to be back on set in terms of COVID protocols?
Henry: The protocols set up for film and tv and for theatre have not been problematic or difficult. These were necessary to be able to work in a safe environment. Get vaxed, get tested, stay healthy and safe. It’s as simple as that. Otherwise, don’t work.

Pictured: Henry Yuk as Eddie Cheung in THE EQUALIZER on CBS. Photo: Michael Greenberg/CBS ©2022 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

BONUS: In 2019, The Urban Action Showcase and Expo presented a WARRIOR Season 1 marathon of all 10 episodes on Saturday, November 9, 2019 at AMC Empire 25 Theaters in New York. After the screenings, Ric Meyers chatted with veteran actors Perry Yung (Father Jun) and Henry Yuk (Long Zii) who star as the 2 leaders of the rival Chinatown gangs, The Hop Wei and Long Zii. Click on the video below to watch the conversation and scroll down for photo coverage.

Perry Yung and Henry Yuk. Photo by Lia Chang
Perry Yung and Henry Yuk. Photo by Lia Chang
Henry Yuk and Lia Chang. Photo by Garth Kravits

The creative team includes Set Design by Chris Cumberbatch, Lighting Design by Victor En Yu Tan, Sound Design by David Wright, Costume Design by Ali Turns, Properties by Marlon Campbell, Casting by Lawrence Evans, with Stage Manager Bayo and Assistant Stage Manager Chrystal Campbell.

Performances are Thursday – Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets ($39; $20 students/seniors) are available for advance purchase at www.instantseats.com/events/NewFederal. Audience members will be required to show proof of vaccination, and to remain masked while in the theater.

Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre
Our Mission is to integrate artists of color and women into the mainstream of American theater by training artists for the profession, and by presenting plays by writers of color and women to integrated, multicultural audiences – plays which evoke the truth through beautiful and artistic re-creations of ourselves.

Several early successes brought NFT to national prominence: Black Girl by J.e. Franklin won a Drama Desk Award, The Taking of Miss Janie by Ed Bullins moved from NFT to Lincoln Center and won the Drama Critics Circle Award, For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange performed on Broadway for 10 months and was nominated for the Tony Award. Both plays were co-produced with the late Joseph Papp. Many performers benefited from early successes on NFT’s stage, including the late Chadwick Boseman, Debbie Allen, Morgan Freeman, Phylicia Rashad, Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson, Issa Rae, and many more. www.newfederaltheatre.com

The Peccadillo Theater Company (Associate Producer) Founded in 1994, the Peccadillo Theater Company is dedicated to the rediscovery of classic American comedy and drama, particularly those works, which despite their obvious literary and theatrical value, are not regularly revived. The mission of The Peccadillo Theater Company is to restore these buried gems to their rightful owner, the American theatergoer. www.thepeccadillo.com

Photos: On Set with the Company of Charles L. White’s GONG LUM’S LEGACY; Opening Night is March 31

Multimedia: WARRIOR Stars Henry Yuk and Perry Yung in Conversation at Urban Action Showcase and Expo

Lia Chang

Lia Chang loves to tell stories – as an actor, a multi-media content producer, a performing arts photographer and an award-winning filmmaker. A co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, Lia makes films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Last Dragon. She stars in and is the Executive Producer for the indie films Hide and Seek (AA Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Best Actress Nomination), Rom-Com Gone Wrong, and When the World Was Young (2021 DisOrient Film Audience Choice Award for Best Short Narrative). Lia made her stage debut as Liat in a national tour of South Pacific with Barbara Eden and Robert Goulet, was featured as Joy in Signature Theatre’s revival of Sam Shepard’s Chicago and has worked extensively Off-Broadway. Photo archives: Lia Chang Theater Portfolio collection,1989-2011, housed in the AAPI collection in the Library of Congress’ Asian Reading Room; Lia Chang Photography Collection in The Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library. Awards: 2000 OCA Chinese American Journalist Award, the 2001 AAJA National Award for New Media. Lia is an AAJA Executive Leadership Graduate (2000), a Western Knight Fellow at USC’s Annenberg College of Communications for Specialized Journalism on Entertainment Journalism in the Digital Age (2000), a National Press Photographers Association Visual Edge/Visual Journalism Fellow at the Poynter Institute for New Media (2001), a Scripps Howard New Media Fellow at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (2002), and a National Tropical Garden Environmental Journalism Fellow (2003). www.liachang.com, www.liachangphotography.com

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