Earlier this spring, the students at Palms Middle School in Los Angeles gathered in their school’s auditorium, their eyes fixed on the stage before them as a Hamilton-inspired rap battle played out.
“My ancestors had a Central Asian persuasion, came to India in what was called the Aryan invasion. This light-skinned group of people would be known as Caucasians when they left to settle down in European locations,” rapped Vinny Chhibber, 36, the actor portraying Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian American Sikh who fought for U.S. citizenship after serving in the U.S. military during World War I.
“Your honor, we don’t debate ancestral unity. And yet we must condemn the way that Thind speaks with impunity,” Steve Humphreys, 43, responded, playing the immigration and naturalization examiner V.W. Tomlinson (among other roles in the two-man cast).
The students at Palms Middle—80 percent of whom are Latino, African American, or Asian American—laugh as Chhibber and Humphreys throw down. Singh, as the dialogue between the two actors later shows, would eventually gain citizenship after having it granted and rescinded two times in a case that went to the Supreme Court.
The United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind is a production of the Los Angeles-based Asian American theater group East West Players (EWP) and its Youth Arts Education program. Since 2005, East West Players has commissioned a playwright each year to produce a work centered on significant Asian Pacific Americans in U.S. history. Past subjects include the Filipino American novelist Carlos Bulosan; the first Chinese American aviator, Katherine Chung; and the first female gunnery officer in the U.S. Navy, the Korean American Susan Ahn Cuddy.
“It came out of a need and almost an anger of, “Where are we? Why aren’t we represented?” It’s our history,” said Tokuda, who estimates up to 15,000 students—many of whom attend schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods—see the plays annually.