How does one score the music for a play based on the life of the most notorious woman in modern China? A thorough knowledge of Eastern and Western musical idioms is essential. It also helps to be familiar with the contorted politics of the Chinese Communist Party. But for emotional realism, having lived through the turmoil instigated partly by the protagonist of Madame Mao’s Memories is a big plus. “I remember the excitement and paranoia of the time,” says 33-year-old Shanghai-born Evan Chen, the composer for Bailiwick Repertory’s new production and a survivor of one of our century’s most tumultuous and least explicable uprisings. “I participated in rallies, and I had to write confessions denouncing my father in order to keep my family out of trouble,” he says. “He was sent to jail, but he forgave me later. We all understood that was the only way to keep the rest of us from being classified as ‘class enemies.'”

When Jiang Qing first met Mao Tse-tung in 1937 in Yenan–the communists’ refuge after the Long March to elude the Nationalist government’s army–Jiang was 24 and already a has-been, a B-movie actress from Shanghai with a dubious past and no future. Though her revolutionary credentials were suspect, she was not deterred. It’s said that she lost no time enticing the sexually hyperactive Mao into her bed. Soon they were living together–to the chagrin of the other party leaders who pitied his abandoned, half-crazed wife. When Mao and Jiang asked for permission to marry, she was visibly pregnant. To obtain the party’s approval, she had to promise never to meddle in its politics.

Being out of the limelight, one can imagine, was not Jiang’s style. After her husband and his followers “liberated” mainland China, she became restless–like Ibsen’s Nora, a role she had portrayed back in her Shanghai days. Her opportunity came in 1966, when, with Mao’s tacit encouragement, she launched the Cultural Revolution to weed out his opponents. In speech after speech she exhorted the masses to rekindle their revolutionary zeal, to overturn the bureaucracy. Her allies all over China organized the Red Guard, school-age children whose allegiance was only to the “great helmsman.”

After the initial euphoria, however, the revolution spun out of control, plunging China into chaos. The Red Guard went on rampages; tens of thousands of party officials were purged and publicly humiliated; families and neighbors informed on one another; many died of hunger; the economy was nearly ruined. The army was eventually called in to restore order, and it took the country almost a decade to recover. For most Chinese, the cultural czarina’s ambitions were comparable to those of an evil empress from an ancient dynasty.

Shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, Jiang lost the power struggle and was arrested along with the other members of the Gang of Four. She remained defiantly unrepentant. At her trial three years later she gave the greatest performance of her career, declaring the proceedings a sham rigged by her enemies and ex-victims. Today, with her death sentence suspended, she’s under house arrest, reportedly busy making dolls and apparently dying of throat cancer.

A bundle of contradictions, Jiang was a manipulator who got manipulated, a libertine who insisted others be puritans, a cultural chauvinist who loved American movies, a feminist who used sexual wiles to advance herself in a man’s world. This elaborate, often perverse interplay of sex and power, of politics and theater, of control and freedom is central to Madame Mao’s Memories by Henry Ong. When the hour-long one-woman show premiered in Los Angeles last winter, it was an immediate hit, and it established Ong, a former journalist, as a new Asian American voice to be reckoned with.

“The manuscript came to us unsolicited in January,” says director John Carlile, “and right away we knew we must produce it. I was struck by the poetry of its language. Then we found out that the LA production had gotten rave reviews.” Carlile says that the biggest preproduction challenges were to find the right non-Equity actress, preferably Asian American, to play the lead–and to find someone to do the music. “We placed an ad in the Reader and Evan was among those who answered it. We liked his demo tape. He turned out to be the perfect choice, being from Shanghai and an eyewitness to the Cultural Revolution. We think he’s very, very talented and professional.”

Chen and Carlile saw eye to eye on the sound and music for the production. “The last thing I wanted was a lot of authentic Chinese folk music and realistic sound effects like gunshots,” says Carlile. Chen agreed. “It’s a theater piece. If you want to learn about Chinese history and culture, you might as well stay home and read a book,” he says. He also believes that any attempt at realism would have been counterproductive, given that the actress who got the part, Catherine Martineau, is Caucasian. (Mindful of recent controversies elsewhere over casting Asian plays, Carlile says the choice was based solely on what he saw at the auditions. However, he has added a nonspeaking part for a dancer from China.)

Chen has come up with a collage of sounds (created with the help of a synthesizer) that punctuate and underscore the drama: “Cotton Club” melodies when Jiang reminisces about the Shanghai nightlife in the 30s; an aria from one of her revolutionary operas when she extols mass culture; tense Bartokian music when she’s denounced by the party for her personal and political sins. “My music evokes moods that sometimes suggest China. To have it totally Chinese would have made Jiang Qing a particular historical person, not a universal tragic figure–a victim of the desire for power,” he explains. “This play is about a universal tragedy, about feelings that non-Chinese can identify with.”

Like many of his compatriots, Chen suffered intense hardship during the 70s, but he claims to have no hatred for Madame Mao–only pity. He’s glad to be out of China. “I’m in an environment where I can do what I want–free to speak out. And I say the communist government has always been repressive–Jiang was only an instrument,” he exclaims, in English that’s surprisingly colloquial for someone who’s been in this country only six years. Determination seems to come naturally to this wiry man who wears his luxuriant hair shoulder length, a practice almost unthinkable in his native land. While in his teens, he picked up rudimentary English by listening to the Voice of America. He also mastered enough Greek to marry an exchange scholar from Greece. “That was probably the only way I could get out of China,” he says.

They divorced three years later when Chen was offered a scholarship to study composition with new-music guru William Kraft in Los Angeles. Two years ago he made another move–to Chicago. “I got sick and tired of Orange County. Too plastic for me,” he says, and smiles. “I wanted to see other parts of America. A friend of mine who lives here told me it’s a very livable city. So I packed everything into my car and drove here. Boy, was he right!” Now an orchestrator for a music production company, he lives in Rogers Park with his new American wife. He says he keeps his distance from the Chinese emigre community, which he regards as a “ghetto.” “I want to make my mark as an Asian American, not as a Chinese,” he asserts.

Yet China still exerts an irresistible emotional pull on Chen. When the students protested in Tiananmen Square last spring, he cheered, hoping for the changes the Maos had promised more than two decades earlier but never delivered. Shortly after the massacre, he wrote an impassioned bluesy lament, “My China,” intended to communicate his sense of outrage and sorrow to American audiences. It will be played after each performance of Madame Mao’s Memories. “What happened to Madame Mao is in the past, like a dream,” says Chen. “My song will remind people of the present, of the reality in China.”

Madame Mao’s Memories runs through October 28 at Bailiwick Repertory, 3212 N. Broadway. Show times are 8 PM Wednesday and Friday, 7 PM Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $15. For more information call 883-1090.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.