Wesley Du knows that a gawky Asian kid isn’t who you’d expect to wind up playing the blues. Pinkie, the character written and performed by Du in “Hong Kong Mississippi,” now running at La MaMa, in Manhattan, is 11 years old when he first hears the likes of Son House and Elmore James through the walls of the grubby San Francisco apartment he shares with his mother. They run the Chinese restaurant downstairs, but Pinkie’s wistful, adolescent mind belongs to the tunes from the club next door, with their echoes of pain and promise.
Pinkie’s gravitation toward the blues, a genre defined by Black artists and legacies of racial injustice, is partly a product of circumstance and osmosis. A Chinese takeout counter abutting a music hall is typical of the Tenderloin district in the 1990s, when Du was listening to Michael Jackson on the radio and absorbing style cues from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” But Pinkie also describes “a certain oddness in being raised Chinese American” that generates his organic affinity with Black artists as fellow outsiders and their vibrant means of expression.
When it comes to wooing girls, for example, he comically borrows a touch of hip-hop swagger; and when a woman grinds down his spirit, he channels his pain into soulful music, guitar strings offering a kind of transcendence. That woman, Pinkie’s formative heartbreaker, is his mother, affectionately played by Du with a lilting accent. Pinkie reveres her as his only family, but she sours on her son and his impractical pursuit of music. Pinkie’s unlikely father figure is a gruff bluesman next door known as Cannonball, who at first tries to dismiss him in a flurry of racially modified expletives before eventually becoming his mentor (the play is titled after Pinkie’s stage name).
Du — who writes in the program that he was expelled from a playwright program at the University of California, Los Angeles, and now works as a therapist — is a deft and intuitive storyteller, crafting a witty and tender coming-of-age story in concise, vivid detail. Du’s rapport with the audience, as he plays more than a dozen characters in 75 minutes, favors high-fives over confessional hand-wringing, in the manner of a neighborhood kid shooting the breeze. In his writing, Du traces complex intersections of identity with easy assurance, allowing psychological weight to accumulate rather than spelling it out for emphasis.
The director Craig Belknap finds ingenuity in simplicity, as with a dishcloth that, at one point, is wadded up into a basketball then later flattened against the waist into a too-tight dress. Fluid, vibe-setting lighting (by Eric Norbury), in Chinese reds and jazz club blues, and cleverly expressive sound (by Bill Froggatt) make the small black box theater fantastically versatile. Like Pinkie’s own escape into the blues, “Hong Kong Mississippi” proves what artists can do with modest means but an abundance of passion, pluck and reasons to play.
Hong Kong Mississippi
Through May 14 at La MaMa, Manhattan; lamama.org. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
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