A little less than two years ago, the play, "Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers," came to China by way of Los Angeles, playing to mostly student audiences in small theaters in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
I took in one performance on the campus of Peking University that felt illicit: Organizers told us they couldn't collect money for tickets and hastily ushered us into seats. As we sat in our winter coats inside an unheated theater, we watched the play -- and our breath -- as Chinese subtitles were projected on the side of the stage. Cheers erupted mid-way through the play when the actor playing Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee announced that the paper would go ahead and publish documents detailing the escalating U.S. role in the Vietnam War.
The evening was scheduled to end with an on-stage discussion from the actors and producers about the themes raised in "Top Secret" -- freedom of the press, government secrets, and the role of the judiciary -- until promoter Alison Friedman announced that she had received a text message ordering her to cancel the discussion. A manager at the university feared what she called "unexpected consequences" from a "freewheeling" talk, and balked.
We were again hastily ushered, this time out into the Beijing cold. But although the moment felt heady and dangerous, that sense of drama was probably just a bit overwrought: The organizers went on to hold post-play discussions at 8 other sold-out performances that year. When it was all said and done, "Top Secret" sold out all ten performances, receiving shouts of approval and standing ovations at every turn.
Back this year, "Top Secret" is now getting the star treatment. The play is scheduled for a three-night run at Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts in June, the first time any American play has appeared inside the grande dame of Chinese music and theater. It's also set for performances in Tianjin, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Fuling, and Chongqing.
And this time around, it's getting support in the form of a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, as well as a range of other sponsors including the Ford Foundation, China Southern Airlines, and Marriott Hotels and Resorts.
The 2011 success of "Top Secret" proves a point about what works in Chinese theater, says producing director Susan Loewenberg of LA Theatre Works. "Nobody thought we could do it. Everybody thought it was a crazy thing to do. A lot of China watchers said, 'How can you bring a play about freedom of the press? How could you bring a play in English?' All of the naysayers were all over it."
The play, chronicling in somewhat talky detail the 1971 story of the Pentagon Papers, was initially turned away from larger venues because Chinese theaters couldn't be convinced the project was commercially viable, says Alison Friedman of Ping Pong Productions.
What eventually drew audiences was a combination of a social media campaign on Sina Weibo run by Jason Xia, a public relations student at the University of Southern California, and Chinese interest in the cast; some of the actors were Americans they recognized from TV shows such as Frasier and movies such as Die Hard: With a Vengeance
But once they got past being star-struck, audiences seemed genuinely interested in the topic, even if it was the first time they'd heard of it. Christina Han, 29, a Chinese businesswoman who saw the play in 2011, says she knew about Watergate but not the Pentagon Papers. Her immediate reaction was that "this would never happen in China." Not having a "proper rule of law," she says, will ultimately have negative consequences for the Chinese economy as foreign investment shies away and special interests wield too much power.
If someone had tried to publish the equivalent of the Pentagon Papers in China, Han adds, that person would have landed in jail. "Obviously, the judicial system is not set up to protect individuals."
Writing on Weibo in 2011, one Chinese viewer said, "It's not only about the First Amendment but also about people's right to be informed."
And while that message is certainly true, the play's producers are cautious about stepping on toes. "I think the worst thing we can do is bring a holier-than-thou play where America is doing everything right," says Loewenberg. "I think one of the strengths of the play is to show American democracy, warts and all."
As for the after-play discussions, the organizers are taking a different approach this time. While there will still be public conversations with lawyers and journalists about the play, they won't be held immediately after the show ends. "We thought it was more appropriate for another setting," says Friedman. The schedule for those talks is still in the works.
The play's Beijing run starts on June 4th -- a date with its own significance in China. Organizers claim that scheduling the play's opening on the anniversary of the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square was pure coincidence. Even so, starting a talk about government missteps on a date one cannot even mention online without being blocked has its own congruity.