Chimerica at the Studio – Just a Few Thoughts

With all of the hoopla surrounding the Pope’s visit to the United States, the unexpected resignation of John Boehner, and the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, the visit to Seattle and Washington of President Xi Jinping of China (otherwise a major, major event) has been lost in the shuffle.

In fact, I was reminded of it only because last night we went to see “Chimerica” at the Studio Theatre.  “Chimerica”, which takes place both in Beijing and New York (back and forth, forth and back), is a play about the confluence of Chinese and Americans and their respective countries.  Written by Lucy Kirkwood, a young British playwright, “Chimerica” is an award winning play which opened in 2013 in London to sellout audiences, and is being premiered in America at the Studio.

The term “Chimerica” is the creation of Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson and is meant to show the two countries as now dependent upon each other, in a symbiotic relationship.  And, I guess, that is one of the goals of the play, as well.

It’s a long play, running over three hours, not counting a 15 minute intermission.  It is a complicated play in that it is composed of dozens of small scenes, some in New York, some in Beijing, with no set changes – often just with the drop of an oriental screen, and its lifting with new characters standing in place of the old.  Many of the actors play multiple roles.

It is 1989, and Tiananmen Square, Beijing.  A young American photographer is in his hotel across from the square photographing the demonstration and the violent army reaction.  Amazed, he watches a lone man carrying two shopping bags walk in front of a battery of tanks, as if daring them to strike him down.  Facing down the Red Army.  He is the tank man.

There really was a tank man.  Photos of his stance were shown world wide.  No one knows his fate, or his identity.

Decades later, the American returns to China.  He visits an old friend, a Chinese man, a teacher of English.  He knows that his friend was a Tiananmen protester and wants him to help him locate the tank man.  His friend thinks it a foolish thing to do.  But he pursues.

Of course there are complications.  The English teacher has problems with the Chinese government and especially their cover-up of air pollution activities, and in return the Chinese government has problems with him. His brother works in a factory and thinks you have to go along with the system.  The English teacher continues to mourn his young wife, who was killed in the 1989 massacre. His brother’s son attends Harvard. The photographer wants his boss at the newspaper in New York to support his search for the tank man and publish the results.  The newspaper depends upon financing from a Chinese institution and cannot afford to offend the powers that run the country.  The photographer’s girl friend (so to speak) is an expert on Chinese demographics and earns her living explaining Chinese consumer preferences to American companies seeing entree. Until she is fired. The photographer gets a lead on his prey – pursuit of the lead gets him arrested. And then he is fired. You can see the complications – and begin to see how the double nation of Chimerica operates.

How does it turn out?  I won’t tell you.  You need to invest the three plus hours to find out.

Is the investment worth it?  That’s the $1.8 trillion question.  The structure of the play is very interesting.  The acting is excellent, without exception.  The basic story line is intriguing.  The plot details are too numerous and too dependent upon happenstance and coincidence.  Is the investment worth it?  That’s the $1.8 trillion question.  The London reviewers generally liked the play; the Washington Post not so much.  The audience was enthusiastic; myself, closer (but not as close as possible) to the Post. I did not find the play profound.  I don’t think it gave me much insight.  But then again, insight is a funny thing, and sometimes it hides deep inside you, popping out when you least expect it.

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