Directed and enacted by students, Wong’s commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre was a profound take on freedom and liberty
It seems rather dubious to look for similarities between an America built on the idea of capitalism, and a China built on Maoist ideals of communism.
Perhaps, that is why Elizabeth Wong’s ‘Letters to a Student Revolutionary’ surprises you, engages you, and converses with you. An exercise in questioning sacrosanct ideals of democracy that we are told we need not, and must not question, staged by the students of the Women’s Christian College.
There is Bibi Lee and Karen, and their seemingly inconsequential encounter during Bibi’s visit to China, after which she returns to the U.S. Surprisingly, they start a correspondence that would last 10 years, punctuated with their laughter, silences, arguments, confessions and struggles.
Wong’s play does something that’s hard to do with letters — converts it into a dialogue. A question posed is answered immediately, they laugh together over jokes and have informed discussions about ideas and ideologies.
The remarkably powerful voices of the actors carried the play through a China despairing from lack of choice, literary censorship and the one-child norm, and an America utterly lost after social upheavals that were leaving them bereft of tradition and history, as the two women continue their inter-continental conversations across the length of a stage.
There was also Debbie, Karen’s sleepy cat that stretched luxuriantly and mewed spectacularly throughout the first half of the play. There was a collective groan from the audience when she died, tragically, having choked on a mouse.
The chorus, symbolising the restrictions, was in formal, sombre kung-fu jackets in military green, grey and dark blue, their hair pulled back in severe buns, while Bibi of the democratic U.S. appears in unabashedly pink shirt, hair flowing loose, lips lined with red.
But this is no naïve play that holds the Big Brother up as the epitome of all that is right with the world. While Karen keeps referring to the U.S as a shining example of liberty, the paradise of freedom, Bibi is constantly reminding her of the reality — “It can be hell living in paradise”.
In a strong critique of consumerism, Bibi calls shopping the national sport (while Karen wonders if it isn’t baseball!) “50 per cent off — the three most beautiful words in the English language,” she says.
Democracy and capitalism
Refusing to be convinced, Karen continues to insist: “I thought there was a difference between democracy and capitalism”. “There isn’t anymore,” Bibi assures her, while the chorus, eyes and faces blank, chant in a dead-pan voice, “Everything happens at the mall”.
Karen discovers Sarte, Hemingway and Martin Luther King through Bibi, the ideas move her, anger her. Meanwhile, Bibi quits her job, frustrated that the news is always so sanitised and “pretty”, and declares, “I’m going to acting school, where they take all your money and teach you to pursue all the wrong dreams”.
The play builds up to the scene at Tiananmen Square, the avenue leading to it ironically called the ‘Avenue of Eternal Peace’, where Karen, inspired by the books that she has read, joins the students as they demand an end to censorship. Bibi’s concerned voice echoes over the Atlantic, cautioning her “I don’t think America is a good model for democracy”.
Then, as the lights change to an ominous deep red, they fall, the chorus, and Karen, to the sound of gun fire, and the images of tanks behind them become visible.
There was a palpable strength in the actors, a curious blend of anger and restraint in their narrative, that convinced you it was real. They lived the story.
While theirs may seem like different stories, one from a democracy, one from a dictatorship, it is the same story, as is ours. Of resisting, digging in your heel and standing up for your beliefs, when the very people who promise you your freedom are the very first ones to take it away.