Playwright and composer Jason Ma honors Chinese heritage in American theater

When Jason Ma was crowned math champion of his school in southern California at age 13, he quips that his immigrant father “must have been very pleased.” Yet he claims his math prowess never quite recovered after his parents took him to see his first musical, A Chorus Line, during which “all the electrical activity in my left brain must have rushed over to the right hemisphere” and “thus, a theater artist was born.”

In 2017, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) honored Ma with its Cole Porter Award in recognition of his decades-long career on dozens of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. The Chinese-American actor, playwright, and composer’s skills were on full display in his most recent musical Gold Mountain, in which 19th century Chinese railroad workers in the American West chorus: “The blisters rise/ We build the tracks/ And it breaks our backs…/ We curse the heat/ And we try to eat…/ A Chinaman dreams of something.”

Sung as part of the 150th anniversary celebration of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the US in 2019, Ma’s lyrics of love, longing, resistance, and survival dramatized the build-up to the Great Strike of 1867, in which thousands of Chinese workers put down their tools and demanded better wages for their oft-overlooked blood offering to American history. First staged at the ASCAP/DreamWorks musical theater workshop in 2016, versions of the musical have since graced audiences in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Salt Lake City, as well as the former railroad town of Ogden, Utah, featuring a mostly Asian-American cast and starring Ali Ewoldt of The Phantom of the Opera.

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author Tina Xu (徐盈盈)

Tina Xu is the former culture editor at The World of Chinese. She writes across film, literature, and society, spanning from indie documentaries to diaspora communities. Her stories for TWOC received the 2021 SOPA Award for Excellence in Regional Reporting on the Environment, and were finalists in Women’s Issues and Photography.

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