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D.W. Griffith stoked racism with ‘Birth of a Nation.’ A playwright imagines what happened next

After the deeply divisive reception of “The Birth of a Nation,” director D.W. Griffith released “Broken Blossoms,” in which a young, abused girl finds comfort in the company of a kind Chinese man. The 1919 silent film, based on Thomas Burke’s short story “The Chink and the Child” and also known as “The Yellow Man and the Girl,” was not only a box office hit but also a notably compassionate depiction of a Chinese character, as it was released amid antimiscegenation laws and during the “Yellow Peril” era of widespread anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the U.S.

“Griffith chose a tragic story of impossible love, love impossible in this world of passions and prejudices and brutal forces … and ‘Broken Blossoms’ came to the screen, a masterpiece in moving pictures,” read the New York Times’ review. “But though the photoplay is distinctly Mr. Griffith’s achievement, it is not his alone. A number of unnamed persons must have contributed to it, in addition to the cast.”

More than a century later, a new play puts that movie’s anonymous participants at center stage. Titled “Unbroken Blossoms,” the East West Players world premiere applauds the two Chinese consultants hired to work on Griffith’s interracial romance film while a white actor plays the movie’s Chinese immigrant character — complete with a rubber band on his head to make his eyes appear slanted onscreen.

“Even though it was yellowface and, by today’s standards, problematic, it was progressive at the time,” said the play’s director, Jeff Liu. “But it is part of our Hollywood history and I don’t think we gain anything by erasing that. We can learn from it, be in conversation with it and build on it as we continue to tell our own stories with more agency.”

Film director and producer D.W. Griffith, pictured in 1922.

(Associated Press)

“Unbroken Blossoms” introduces James B. Leong, who went on to write and direct the movie “Lotus Blossom” and act in more than 80 films, and Moon Kwan, who later directed more than 50 films in China while distributing Chinese titles in America. Philip W. Chung, a playwright and the creative director for director Justin Lin’s company YOMYOMF, began writing the piece a decade ago upon learning of the consultants’ existence from the Chinese American film history documentary “Hollywood Chinese.”

“I love movies, and it was mind-blowing to me that there were these people who looked like me in significant roles in the industry back then, because that’s not something you learn when you’re coming up and studying film,” he explained. “The most fascinating thing to me is they both became filmmakers after this movie. Just the idea that someone at that time did that, when it’s still hard to even do that now, was so inspiring.”

The lack of historical record about Leong and Kwan’s contributions to “Broken Blossoms” was “freeing” for Chung, who fictionalized their personalities and perspectives of how effective a Hollywood cultural consultant can be: Onstage, Kwan, portrayed by Ron Song, is eager to help a white actor authentically represent the Chinese population in a silent movie, while Leong, played by Gavin Kawin Lee, cynically calls their hires a studio publicity stunt.

The play also dramatizes the argument that Griffith made “Broken Blossoms,” as well as “Intolerance,” in response to the backlash against “Birth of a Nation,” which ignited the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. “He was blindsided by the accusations of racism and bigotry, and he then became very defensive of his work,” said Chung, who researched Griffith via books and museum archives. “These movies felt like him answering his critics: ‘You think I’m racist? I’m gonna make these films that will show you that I’m not.’”

In a black-and-white film still, a seated man looks at a woman lying down

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish in the 1919 film “Broken Blossoms.”

(United Archives via Getty Images)

Throughout the play, some moments depicting the making of the movie are delivered with an absurd humor, given the casting of a white actor in a Chinese role and the hiring of two consultants for cultural authenticity. (Still, Richard Barthelmess’ performance as Cheng Huan in the movie was considered by critics to be the best of his career.) Others are presented with a palpable horror, as Griffith famously taunted Lillian Gish to elicit her performance in the film’s closet scene.

Staging such a scene, and performing it night after night, “requires actors who would be willing to go there and not be afraid of what was in history,” said Liu of Arye Gross, who portrays Griffith. “It’s all about permission and trust from everyone in the show about why we’re telling this story — not just to create a portrait of a flawed human being but also to explore the white privilege aspect of making art in Hollywood.”

Although the majority of the “Unbroken Blossoms” plot is historical fiction, Chung hopes the piece sends a real message specifically to filmmakers and film fans of Asian descent, especially those striving to further improve culturally authentic representation onscreen.

“What I wanted to make clear in the play is how much progress has been made since this movie, but also how much hasn’t changed,” said Chung. “But I also find it somewhat inspiring that, in a way, this is a shared struggle. It’s not just something that we’re going through for the first time now, and there’s a long history that we’re connected to, even if it’s been largely forgotten by the general public.

“But we have to learn that history in order to build on it and move forward.”

Two men looking up at a man on steps

Gavin Kawin Lee, left, Ron Song and Arye Gross in “Unbroken Blossoms” at East West Players.

(Zev Rose Woolley)

‘Unbroken Blossoms’

Where: East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Mondays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; ends July 21

Tickets: Starts at $39

Information: (213) 625-7000 or

Running time: About 2 hours (one 15-minute intermission)

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