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Gunpowder Man

Sac State student Jennifer Ly as Little Tiger in <i>Gunpowder Man</i>.

Sac State student Jennifer Ly as Little Tiger in Gunpowder Man.

Rated 4.0

Historically minded California playwright Rick Foster brings some local lore to the stage in Gunpowder Man. It’s a one-woman show (which Foster wrote and directed) delving into the life of someone who, in decades past, we might have referred to as a “Chinese coolie” (Foster avoids the term), building the transcontinental railroad through the Sierra in 1860s.

The viewpoint character is Little Tiger, a woman moving through the unruly California frontier disguised as a teenage boy. She becomes one of the expendables lowered down a cliff in a wicker basket, planting an explosive charge to blast a path for the rails. You’ve probably seen an exhibit showing this dangerous work at the railroad museum in Old Sacramento.

Foster’s dramatic canvas includes much more. We learn why Little Tiger left China after the Taiping Rebellion (which resulted in some 20 million deaths), and we see her bitter experience after the Gold Rush, when the Chinese—no longer needed as cheap labor by the railroad barons—were persecuted by angry whites.

Actress Jennifer Ly, a Sac State student, gives a spunky, winning solo performance that is fresh, energetic and convincing, using an assortment of simple props. Gunpowder Man is a small show, only 55-minutes long (it’s being prepped for a school tour). But it’s well-written, well-grounded in our collective past, and solidly entertaining.