A shameful story from Tacoma’s past put to stage
By Evan Welsh
There are two things you always expect to come out in a courtroom: a story and the truth. Tacoma’s story of Nov. 3, 1885 is one that is not often discussed or even widely known. The new play “The Chinese Question: The Tacoma Method,” tells this tragic story and allows for the truth to come forward, regardless of how harsh or disappointing that truth may be.
Set in an old courtroom in Courthouse Square, “The Chinese Question” displays the day of, the events leading up to and the aftermath of the 1885 Chinese Expulsion of Tacoma, also known as “The Tacoma Method.” The Tacoma Method was the forced removal of the Chinese community in Tacoma by a mob led by mayor Jacob Weisbach. Two days later, on Nov. 5, Chinese houses and businesses were ransacked and burned down.
The play focuses on the personal narratives of all involved with this horrific event. The audience is told about Chinese immigrants attempting to make their lives in the U.S. as small business owners,the people from the Tacoma community who opposed their presence and the Tacomans who called these immigrants their friends. Most of the characters in “The Chinese Question” were real people; only a few fictional characters were present, including a Buffalo Soldier named Charles who helped narrate the play.
More than once during the play, one of the narrators, Nettie Craig Asberry, an African-American teacher and musician in Tacoma during the late 19th and early 20th century, thanks other characters for “sharing their truth.” This play focuses heavily on getting a truthful narrative out into the world. A theme made important by the information provided is that three times, attackers of the Chinese community in Tacoma were put on trial for these atrocities and three times they were acquitted of their crimes.
While the reading of this play happens in a courtroom, the goal is to pass the script on to students and museums so that this vital story can be told to a wider audience. “I think the story … could be handled in any space. … We hope it’s a mobile and accessible piece,” Chevi Chung, the director and a co-writer of “The Chinese Question,” said.
“I have lived in Tacoma for five years and walk down Pacific Avenue at least once a week, and I learned about The Tacoma Method only about six months ago,” Alana Fineman, a Puget Sound alumna and co-writer of “The Chinese Question,” said.
Despite the Chinese Reconciliation Park dedicated to the memory of those affected by this event and the direct proximity of the narrative, The Tacoma Method is not widely discussed. “I found out about it about five years ago — I told myself, ‘If I ever had my own theatre company I’m going to tell this story,” Chung said.
Unfortunately, the story of The Tacoma Method and its roots in racism and discrimination feels particularly relevant in the shadow of the recent rise in such feelings being vocalized around the U.S.
“This piece is important because it attempts to tell the stories of these immigrants that an oppressive racial majority intentionally destroyed, and it reminds us we are not immune to this kind of evil,” Fineman said, discussing the proximity of these tragic events.
“The Chinese Question” tells an important but often forgotten piece of history from the City of Destiny. The beauty in the story’s presentation shines a light on Tacoma’s past and remains relevant in the face of our nation’s current state. Here’s to hoping the script of “The Chinese Question” will be picked up by a multitude of educational institutes and museums around the Pacific Northwest, so the story of The Tacoma Method can become one that is well-recognized throughout the region.
“The Chinese Question: The Tacoma Method” is produced by the Empathos Company, the new theatre company founded by Chung. According to Chung, Empathos has much more coming in the future. To learn more about “The Chinese Method” or Empathos Company, visit empathos.com.