Last winter, I undertook what became one of the most dramatic and personally inspiring experiences of my life—directing August Wilson’s Fences at the National Theatre of China, supported by the Asian Cultural Council. The Beijing People’s Art Theatre courageously took on a white woman American director to stage August Wilson’s play—about Troy Maxson, a black garbage collector, and his family in Pittsburgh, Pa.—with all Chinese actors, designers and technical staff. (This same theatre invited Arthur Miller to direct Death of a Salesman in 1983.) Not one actor had been to America, knew an African American, or even spoke English.
Established early in Mao’s People’s Republic of China, BPAT is an enormous, golden-colored block of a building emblazoned with a red star and identifying characters on Wangfujing Street in central Beijing. Housed within its walls are a 1,300-seat proscenium theatre with excellent acoustics and the finest theatre company in China. Also located in the complex are a nightclub, restaurant, Kodak film store, advertising company and bookshop. These recent inhabitants use former theatre space and help to defray the operating costs of the building.
Surrounding the theatre are the winding alleys (hutongs) of old Beijing with thousands of centuries-old, single-storied brick houses with televisions blaring; outdoor meat, fish, vegetable and furniture markets; modern buildings under construction; monumental government offices and Tiananmen Square; and the Forbidden City a ten-minute walk away. In this city teaming with 12 million people, glimpses of shockingly rapid change strike the eye daily. Men pull carts and pedal cabs as cars whiz by; elderly women dressed in pajamas with three-inch once-bound feet stand in front of glass and steel corporate high rises and modern hotels; vegetable wagons and dogs in baskets await buyers in hutongs at the same time supermarkets open their doors. Young people dressed in Western business suits carry personal computers; others hang about idle in video arcades. Rushing toward the 21st century on a rampage of consumerism, China in the ’90s wants to be a member of the modern world and economic community, yet still tries to preserve its intellectual tradition and social values. Nowhere could the clash between old and new be more apparent.
From the beginning of our eight-month discussion about which American play would be best for us to do together, I believed that Fences, set in the social upheaval of the civil rights movement and revolving around a father/son conflict, would suit both the rapid societal change in China as well as the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. Happily, both August Wilson, whom I had met while directing at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and BPAT deputy director Liu Jinyun, himself a playwright and former village cadre, found the idea exciting and agreed to do the play. Liu found the subject matter universal and the BPAT’s training in the realistic tradition of the Moscow Art Theatre appropriate to the style of the play. Liu also knew he had a talented group of actors in their thirties and forties in the resident company who could tackle Wilson’s play, and wanted to test their strength and broaden their horizons.
Liu sees the “generation ditch” and increasing divorce rate as evidence of social change in China influencing people’s emotional lives. “The older generation of Chinese want to have an iron rice bowl, a state job,” he says. “We have already been working at a government job for 10 or 20 years. I have medical insurance, and my housing is taken care of, but today’s younger generation isn’t satisfied with that. They want to jump in the sea. They all want to be in business. They want to ditch their government jobs and rush into society. A lot of fathers opposed their children on this, but they don’t listen. They are running after what they want.”
Judging from the enormous public response, Fences strikes a chord in today’s China. Riding bicycles one-and-one-half hours to get there (and the same time to return home), the Chinese paid 20 to 50 yuan for a ticket on an average salary of 400 yuan per month. Despite Wilson’s recent public disavowal of cross-racial casting, this production’s success testifies to his belief that he writes about issues “common to all cultures, but roots them in the black experience.” It’s not just Troy’s son Cory who confronts his father, drunk on the steps, with “You in my way. I got to get by.” As Wilson declares, “Every generation says that to the previous generation…. That’s the climb into manhood. There’s a moment when we all challenge our parents, challenge our fathers.”
At 9 a.m. on the morning after my arrival, I met the cast (dressed in Western clothes) and heard the script in Mandarin for the first time. I asked the cast to look at rehearsal as a safe place for the exploration of character. Rehearsals would be open to anyone at the BPAT with only one caveat—spectators would not be able to talk while we were working on scenes. (Not a small rule in a culture which discusses every aspect of its communal life. Older actors, costumers, designers, technicians, writers, students and office workers all dropped in constantly to see what we were doing.)
Next the set designer presented a model not unlike the ranchhouse on “Bonanza!” Luckily, I had arrived armed with visual materials of Pittsburgh gleaned from the New York Public Library, G. W. Mercier’s photos of Hill District houses and a video of The Piano Lesson done for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. While the cast and I proceeded with “table” rehearsals, the set designer went to work. Five days later, a phenomenal set looking amazingly like Wilson’s neighborhood—complete with lamp-lit alley and background steel mills—emerged.
Seeing parallels with old Beijing’s hutongs surrounded by modern construction and factories, the designer envisioned Troy’s house as the oldest one of several on the street in a blue-collar community dwarfed by industrial growth and change. Its inhabitants in the 1950s included African Americans from the rural South who were also frugal survivors of prison, the Depression and World War II. Beijing’s older generation—veterans of the early days of the People’s Republic, famine and political changes—found their counterparts in the Maxson family. The story of an illiterate black garbage collector who had moved to industrial Pittsburgh to create a better life made lots of sense in Beijing, where former farmers clean the streets so their sons and daughters can attend university.
While the realistic treatment of the set and the acting style reflected the Moscow Art Theatre influence and the company’s familiarity with plays from the West, the actors were unfamiliar with black behavior in their daily lives. To close the gap, we watched American films, sports videos and listened to music—especially the blues. Singing the blues may be one of the most identifying aspects of Wilson’s world and people. Yet song must come from an emotional root, otherwise it’s meaningless. Composer Baikida Carroll gave me a crash course in 20th-century black music. Actor/singer Charles Weldon laid down an a cappella blues tape of all the sung music in Fences. I found an old Christian song for Rose in a Chinese hymnal. The trick was to take something essentially African American and transform it into something emotionally meaningful for the Chinese.
In five days of thorough text work, we did our best to capture the colloquialisms, rhythm and poetry of the dialogue, and occasionally adjusted parts of the translation to capture Wilson’s style and meaning for ourselves and the Chinese audience. The Piano Lesson helped the cast to see another set of Wilson characters in action and to discover the importance of knowing one’s past in order to live fully and responsibly in the present and create a better future.
We talked about Wilson and his chronicle of plays, the history of slavery and its attendant shattering of families, sharecropping, northward emigration, crime in the black community, the Negro and American baseball leagues, even African and Christian forms of religion. Communicating family history through stories came easily to a cast already experienced with family separation and revolution, and aware of slavery under the emperors or desperate poverty as tenant farmers. Real confrontation with death and the Devil posed no problem for those belonging to a culture fascinated by stories of ghosts and lots of superstitions.
The company, used to transforming themselves into foreigners through wigs and makeup, were concerned about pretending to be African Americans. Liang Guanhua, who played Troy, said, “When we first started, we thought we’d have to paint ourselves black, but the director said ‘No!'” I did not want black-faced caricatures of these very real people, but wanted the actors to think of their characters as themselves. In an interview with Mike Laris, chief of the Newsweek Beijing bureau and special writer for the Washington Post, Liang said, “Everybody knows we’re not black. Let’s just take our yellow skin up onstage and make the audience believe we’re black with our words and performance.” Beijing critics praised this approach and Laris, in an article for the Washington Post, found Troy “an endearing combination of 1950s Pittsburgh and 1990s Beijing.”
Because upright posture and reserve characterize Chinese physical behavior, the play’s physical language—public displays of affection between Troy and his wife, Rose; the high emotions and physical fight between them when Troy confesses he’s going to be a father; Cory’s escalating conflict with Troy and its culmination when Troy nearly clubs Cory to death with the baseball bat—caused initial embarrassment. Everyone needed to be encouraged and the physical action choreographed in detail. Then the actors played with impressive strength, real vulnerability and emotional power.
Differing cultural values also came into play. Constrained by the one-child-per-family law, parents who have chosen sons to carry on the family line give them everything they want. Lyons’s regular money requests of his father called forth laughs of recognition from the Chinese, but other parent/child relationships were more difficult for the Chinese to understand, such as Troy’s insisting Cory earn half the money for the TV, or kicking Cory out of the house as a kind of initiation into manhood. Rose’s straightforward defense of Cory, confrontation with Troy about Roberta and revelations of the limits of their marriage were considered very strong, independent and even masculine in a world where women are taught to speak with modesty and averted eyes. Yet Rose’s acceptance of girl-baby Raynell moved watching company members and audiences to tears.
When the production opened, Xie Xizhang, entertainment critic for the Beijing Evening News, wrote: “By the end you feel connected with black people’s destiny. The problems Troy and his family face are very much like those faced by average people in China.” The Washington Post‘s Mike Laris described Fences this way: “The odds didn’t seem great that China, which has experienced a surge of racial pride to go along with its remarkable economic growth, would embrace a play with black characters by an author who recently called for a new Black Power movement in American theatre. But the Beijing production of Fences transcends race.”
As August Wilson himself says, “There are some things specific to human life being lived as a black man in America…but there is no idea that cannot be contained by that. It’s different than as a Chinese man in China, but damn if we all don’t want to be loved, and damn if we don’t all know a betrayal when we see one. We all have conflicts with our parents.
“All of our lives, whether you’re Chinese or Eskimo, ultimately connect to and share those great questions, those great ideas of man: God and the Devil, and love, honor, duty, betrayal. And then you die, and it’s all over. You can move out of the way and let someone else have a go at it.”
Director Margaret Booker is at Stanford University’s department of drama.