Beyond the Barriers
by Leanna Brodie
Beijing, June 2017: Of all the possible barriers to researching a play about Arthur Miller in China, I didn’t think that one of the most pressing ones would be figuring out how to cross the street.
Jovanni – my partner in this project, as in life – had very sensibly booked us a hotel across the street from the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, China’s premier classical repertory company (large and important enough to have its own museum), visiting which was the main object of this trip. In 1983, BPAT invited Arthur Miller – one of the most revered American public intellectuals of the 20th century – to direct the Chinese premiere of his masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, translated by and starring the great Ying Ruocheng. It was arguably the first major collaboration between Western and Chinese artists, scarcely a decade after the Cultural Revolution and the war in Vietnam. Several years ago, when I picked up Miller’s book Salesman in Beijing, I was enchanted by his account of his sojourn in this three-thousand-year-old city; of his struggles to communicate the essence of his archetypically American play to a group of Mandarin-speaking actors who knew almost nothing of America, and had spent most of their lives being told that Americans and their values were the enemy (just as Americans had been told about Communist China). I was thrilled to discover that Ying had also written (in English!) a memoir about this production. And that the respected photographer Inge Morath (Miller’s wife) had documented it in pictures. This was a rare chance to experience a major cross-cultural collaboration from multiple perspectives… each belonging to a renowned, thoughtful, sensitive artist; each distinct and fascinating.
And now – thanks to PTC and the Gateway Theatre – here we were, Jovanni and I and our intrepid dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty, across the ocean… and across from BPAT where our story took place. We were separated from it only by a typically busy thoroughfare in this metropolis of 25 million people (roughly the population of Canada in 1983). But we clung to each other for dear life as bicycles, mopeds, cars and trucks whizzed past us, in rhythms that seemed to have little to do with traffic signs or signals, punctuated by expressive bursts of honking. After several hair-raising street crossings – sometimes featuring near-collisions with indignant motorcyclists – Jovanni suddenly exclaimed: “Oh! I get it.” He then explained to me the principles that the drivers and riders were following, and why they made perfect sense under the circumstances. Knowing him as I do, I am confident that he was able to see this, not because he is ethnically Chinese, but because he often perceives in terms of systems and patterns and the big picture. It’s one of the things I love about him… and one of the reasons he is such a forward-thinking artistic director. I no longer have any memory of what exactly he said, but it sure made sense at the time. (And I’m damn sure it kept me from being Beijing roadkill, too.)
The truth is, most of us only truly absorb a new language when it is essential to our well-being – i.e., for work, food, safety, or love – and this is even more true of a new culture. I started this project with Jovanni in a context of intellectual and cultural curiosity, not survival. However, you can’t get to the theatre – or the theatre museum – until you can figure out how to cross the street. And I’m attracted to the story of Ying and Miller not only because of its grand intellectual-sociological implications: I love it because it’s about a wildly diverse bunch of people, in one room, day by day, hashing out the same problems that theatre people face daily in every rehearsal room in the world: where to stand, when to run, how to speak the text, who am I, who is she, we need more time, what about the Party (or, what about the critics), will anyone come, will anyone get it, where the hell do I find a vintage fridge? Struggling to use the resources at our disposal to tell our story, hopefully in such a compelling way that the people in our community connect to it as deeply as we do… and so that our story connects them, if only for a moment, to each other.
In the Vancouver area, where I live, Miller and Ying’s account of North American and Chinese people working together feels particularly inspiring… and opportunities to connect and communicate across massive cultural divides are urgently needed. At 60%, my home of Richmond – across the river from Vancouver proper – has the highest percentage of immigrants of any city in Canada. In our 2016 census, 54% of us self-reported as Chinese. That is up from 34% in 1996, in a city that was still overwhelmingly white within my lifetime. I find the possibilities of this place exciting… but undeniably, such a huge and rapid demographic shift has not come without tensions and cost. Our multiple languages and cultures are opportunities… but they are also very real, very dramatic barriers.
For a couple of years now, I’ve been part of a Richmond-based Facebook group where thousands of people – ethnically Scottish, Chinese, Filipino, South Asian, and other – talk about everything from Ikea jobs and missing cats to the Massey Tunnel to that worldwide viral video where a girl got dragged off a Steveston pier by a sea lion. Nothing is out of bounds, and people also discuss those illegal local ride-sharing services that only accept Chinese-speaking passengers, in terms that would scorch the ears of most of the “woke” artists I know… except that the people complaining are as likely as not to be ethnically Asian, even Chinese. And the very next day after one of these contentious threads is posted, the people involved might rally around a distraught transgender teen, or deliver food hampers to a newcomer family. It’s far from a perfect online community, and it’s only available to English-speakers… yet it seems clear to me that it’s opening dialogue between people in my city who might not have a way into each other’s silos in the off-line world.
Which brings me back to Beijing, and BPAT, and why I was there braving the terrifying traffic, in a state of jet lag, bewilderment, and hope.
There are at least seventeen reasons why I want so badly to tell this story, but for now, here’s one of them. I don’t know if my adopted home of Richmond is a mosaic or a melting pot or a powder keg. All I know is that the future of our civilization is being tested and forged in communities like this one…. and that, whether people here resist it or not, we will go on evolving. The story of Ying and Morath and BPAT and Miller inspires me to imagine a more full, more joyous, more open community in the future.
To share some of the research results of the trip, and other avenues Leanna and Jovanni are exploring as they start writing their new play, join us for Unscripted: Salesman in China on Sunday, February 11, from 2 – 5 pm at the Gateway Theatre. Tickets are available online here.