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."