MADAME MAO’S MEMORIES
A museum director gets busted in Cincinnati. Artists get vilified in Congress. Rap’s ripped, the NEA’s gutted, and aldermen loot the Art Institute.
Suddenly art’s political again. Suddenly it’s recovered that old cachet of danger and debate. The nice-nice period of quiet grants for quiet shows, of innovation by committee, and of the arts-management-career boom appears to be over. Or in remission, anyway. For years, performance artists like Karen Finley couldn’t get arrested; now they can.
Artists are even attacking each other. Consider the Miss Saigon affair: British producer Cameron Mackintosh decides to bring his blockbuster update of Madame Butterfly to New York, complete with West End star Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian pimp. Actors’ Equity says no to Pryce, a white man, playing a Eurasian character. Mackintosh responds by threatening to cancel the whole multimillion-dollar production. Equity caves in on Pryce–but not, it insists, on the principle of the thing.
The controversy was reported in the papers, and sparked some argument about reverse racism versus the depiction of minorities onstage versus artistic freedom versus the plain fact that Asian actors don’t get much work. Together with everything else that’s been going on, it intensified the sense of a community in thick turmoil.
And now here’s Bailiwick Repertory, come along to bring the Miss Saigon mess home–give the issue some local color, as it were: the Bailiwick production of Madame Mao’s Memories–Henry Ong’s new play about the mighty, fallen Jiang Qing–features a Caucasian actress in the title role.
I don’t know if this is canny or stupid on Bailiwick’s part. I’m pretty sure it’s not meant to be brave; the explanations I’ve heard so far aren’t built on any moral or political premise–just the claim that the Bailiwick people couldn’t find a local Asian or Asian American actress with the chops to do the job. But then again, that’s exactly what the Miss Saigon people claimed. In any event, Bailiwick softened the blow by adding a new role to Ong’s solo script: a sort of shadow Jiang who literally dances into and out of events, providing counterpoint in movement or recapitulating Jiang’s speeches in Chinese. Lee Chen, a recent emigre from Inner Mongolia, plays the shadow Jiang.
What’s really peculiar about all this is the fact that, in focusing on Madame Mao’s Memories as part of the Miss Saigon controversy, you tend to forget how well it relates to that other art-world crisis–the one involving government attempts to tell artists what they can and cannot do. Madame Jiang was, after all, the Chinese Jesse Helms. Only more so. The woman was a veritable Helmsian wet dream of dogmatic authoritarianism. During the Cultural Revolution–which Ong has her claiming as her own idea–Jiang not only had the audacity to trash the traditional theatrical canon and replace it with her own, she had the clout to force every Chinese artist and scholar to toe her ideological/aesthetic line. Or die. Tens of thousands were murdered under her auspices, tens of thousands more were persecuted. Truly an inspiration for the senator from North Carolina–as she was for the prime minister of Kampuchea, Pol Pot.
Unfortunately, Ong’s play isn’t the best place to go for a clear vision of Jiang’s macabre accomplishments. Like just about every other solo show about a public figure–from Give ‘Em Hell, Harry to Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein–Madame Mao’s Memories reduces vast historical, cultural, and economic forces to problems in elementary psychology. Why was there a Cultural Revolution? As near as I can figure, Ong thinks it was because Jiang’s dad hit her mother when she was a kid. Why did thousands die in purges? Apparently because Jiang wanted revenge on unkind directors.
Ong’s psychologizing is worse than most, since it never fulfills even its own narrow logic. Never answers even its own trivial questions. Ong’s Jiang is a mess of confused, mostly cliched compulsions that do little or nothing to explain her fervor, her dogmatism, her megalomania, her anger, her wiliness, her strength. The best we get out of Ong is confirmation that this here is one manipulative bitch.
John Carlile’s direction goes a surprisingly long way toward providing a context for Ong’s psychobabblings. Quite aside from her usefulness as a political expedient, the shadow Jiang serves an important dramatic function: much like a genuine shadow, she gives Jiang a depth, definition, and solidity she wouldn’t otherwise have. Chen helps set Jiang in relief.
But neither Carlile nor his Caucasian Jiang, Catherine Martineau, can overcome Ong’s essential fuzzy-mindedness. A strong and resourceful actress, Martineau is nevertheless reduced to playing not a character but a long series of seemingly random emotions–each emotion stuck in turn, like a Chinese opera mask, on her face. The best I can say about this show is that one of its more intimate passages gave me the chance to imagine the unimaginable: Mao Tse-tung having sex, doggy style.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.