Chimerica: Post-Production Thoughts

Under the category of ‘better late than never’ – I’m finally writing about my experience watching Quantum Theatre production of Chimerica.

It was my first Quantum Theater production. I don’t know why that is the case. But it felt fitting that Chimerica was my first show and my first live theater performance since the the pandemic. In the midst of the pandemic. Before life closed in on itself again.

Quantum did not disappoint. The production was marvelous which I will get into, but the staging of the performance – not the show, but the literal venue. It was stark and angular. It was the first time I had to show my vaccination card. And I couldn’t find it. But I realized I had a photo and I almost sobbed with relief. Then a little sobbing with the realization of how regimented life has become.

The seats were close together so that was acutely uncomfortable. At intermission, Laura and I slid into a table for two and sipped water surreptitiously surrounded by images from Communist China with our cards in our bags. It would be easy to write off that experience incorrectly as a reflection of autocracy in America. Instead, I think of it as proof of my liberty because I have access to the vaccine and the education to understand why I need it. Still, I give you that it was chilling.

I think live theater should continue to offer online streaming options to prevent a more radical divide between those who will go live and those who will not. We need live art even if its on a screen to endure a pandemic. Limiting our access to art to “in real time” exposure is unhealthy for the community and creates barriers to the arts. Not everyone can afford to attend, either financially or with the risk to their health.

Chimerica is a fictionalized account of a journalist’s search for the identity of an individual known as The Bagman because of the image of a man holding grocery bags facing down the tanks at Tianeman Square.

In the spring of 1989, I was a freshman in college. I was taking my first International Relations class and I cannot honestly remember a thing about either one. Well, I remember learning about parliamentary governments. And I remember our instructor railing against Communism. But I don’t remember one of the most infamous human rights protests of the 20th century.

I liked the show, but I did not like the characters especially the two Western characters.

Here’s the summary:

Chimerica follows photojournalist Joe Schofield, who photographed the unidentified Tank Man during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. Twenty years later, Chinese dissident and ESL teacher Zhang Lin, who was present during the 1989 pro-democracy protests and subsequent massacre, assists Joe in his quest to find Tank Man. Zhang Lin’s fiancee, Liuli, died in the protests and flashback scenes between Liuli and Zhang Lin appear throughout the play. Joe’s journalist colleagues recommend that Joe not pursue the Tank Man. After Joe returns to America, where Lin suggests the Tank Man is living, Zhang Lin is tortured by the Chinese authorities. Joe develops a relationship with Englishwoman, Tessa, who is profiling the Chinese population so that her employer can have an advantage in China.[5] At the end of the play, it is revealed that Zhang Lin was the Tank Man.

Joe Schofield was a jagoff as we say in Pittsburgh, a reckless cocksure man who stumbled through life as if he was the main character. After watching events unfold at Tiananmen Square, he still failed to understand that it was not all about him. So of course he pursues a story to unmask the identity of a solitary figure, as if knowing his name was more important than knowing what he did. And of course Joe seems impervious to the fallout of his quest because its all about him. He tears families apart, jeopardizes some of the heroes he claims to admire, and disregards the request to take care of a young Chinese nephew of the translator who saved his life … little knowing that he was betraying the actual person he sought.

Actor Kyle Haden did a nice job of making me feel embarrassed to be an American. And I say that as a compliment. He was barely pulling off the flashback segments, but I truly was sucked in to the idea that he was compelled to keep doing this.

His friend and sometime lover Tessa Kendrick as a British woman served to remind us that ‘Western’ values also include former geopolitical giants, like Great Britain. Anyone who isn’t thinking about a time when the United States is also a former geopolitical superpower is clueless. It is hard to say that a skinny white British woman is terribly representative, but since I was more interested in the nationalism than the individual emotional turmoil of unenlightened folks, that was okay.

I didn’t like the character, I’m unsure if I was supposed to but the performances were solid.

Quantum’s cast of 12 included 50% actors of Asian heritage. That seems like a no-brainer for a play centering around China, but … perhaps the stark whiteness of the rest of the cast with the exception of Haden said more about it?

The set was haunting. Using the empty space of the former Ace Hotel, now the Maverick, was interesting but effective. It was stark and harsh with empty halls that echoed as I quickly dashed to the bathroom. The stage worked very well, with my usual admiration for the stage crew’s deft set changes. I find that dance always fascinating and integral to the production, a barely visible reminder that we must constantly shift our perspective when engaging art. It is rare that one point of view is useful.

I will see this show again in some format because I don’t believe I understood it well enough.

I’m looking forward to future performances by Quantum Theater.

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