“Oh fuck, what is he doing?”

—Joe Schofield, in Chimerica

On June 5, 1989, a lean young Chinese man in a white shirt and dark pants stepped in front of a column of military tanks at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where they’d been used against prodemocracy demonstrators. By the following weekend I was pushing a stroller through the 57th Street Art Fair, wearing a T-shirt with that man’s picture printed on it.

If you were anywhere near conscious that summer, you’ll remember the story and the images it produced. The lone protester—still identified only by his media epithet, the “Tank Man”—took up a position in multilane Chang’an (“Eternal Peace”) Avenue. The lead tank stopped short before him, and the Tank Man gestured with a bag he was carrying as if to say, Clear off!! When the tank turned to go around him, he moved to cut it off, and—strange to say, inasmuch as untold numbers of people had been shot by soldiers and crushed by tank treads the previous night—the tank stopped again. The Tank Man even climbed up onto the vehicle at one point, evidently trying to engage the crew. Things went on this way for about three minutes, until some people in civilian clothes (friends? Samaritans? police?) hustled him off to parts unknown.

Credit: AP

It was one of the most electrifying acts of dissent of my lifetime. Also one of the most enigmatic, at least from my American point of view. What made him do it? What made him think he could do it? How come the tank crew didn’t blast or bulldoze him? Automatic weapons fire is loudly audible on a CNN video of the event, yet the Tank Man’s actions seem to take place in a charmed circle, outside of time, circumstances, or, really, mortality. His apparent obliviousness to consequences reminds me of Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who set himself aflame on a Saigon street in 1963 and then sat composedly, allowing himself to be reduced to ash.

And, like I say, I got the T-shirt.

That’s another piece of the Tank Man story, the piece on which British playwright Lucy Kirkwood concentrates in her 2013 drama Chimerica, offered now in an engrossing three-hour production directed by Nick Bowling for TimeLine Theatre.
There were several Western news photographers on hand to document the Tank Man’s death-defying feat 31 years ago, most of them standing on the balconies of a hotel a half mile away from Chang’an Avenue. A couple took photos that became iconic representations of the confrontation. Kirkwood posits the fictional Joe Schofield as one of them.

We first meet Joe as an inexperienced 19-year-old, lucky enough to witness history, alert enough to take its picture, and clever enough to deceive the Chinese police when they come to confiscate his film. Fast-forward to 2013 and he’s a middle-aged camera jockey with great shots of war zones all over the world but not much else to call his own. No wife or kids, certainly. He’s pleased enough about the lack of encumbrance. But changes in technology and the news business can’t be laughed off so easily, because they’re quickly rendering him obsolete. Anyone in media at any level will recognize the landmarks: a corporate boss who’s big on lifestyle and leisure, skittish on hard news; iPhones that make everybody a reporter; online profiling systems that dice the public into nano-niche sales targets. No wonder Joe attempts to revisit the triumph of his youth, selling his editor on a story about the fate of the Tank Man.

The quest takes him back to Beijing, where he reconnects with an old associate, Zhang Lin, whose life now consists of teaching “crazy English” and mourning his wife, killed at Tiananmen Square. In Zhang Lin and Joe, Kirkwood explores the tension between Chinese and American, native and visitor, participant and voyeur, victim and witness, event and, yes, T-shirt.

Kirkwood makes one glaring omission in failing to acknowledge her own role as a European building a fiction from this material. She can be accused of appropriation—the postmodern crime of transforming other people’s lives into metaphors—which is precisely her charge against Joe. But what she gives us within the conventional limits of the narrative is worldly, smart, and surprisingly playful considering the depths of sorrow it reaches. My wife and I spent the ride home debating Joe’s personal responsibility (her side) versus his situation as a victim of journalistic duty (my side). Not a lot of shows manage that. I’m sticking to my argument, however: Like any good tragedy, Chimerica unfolds with a sense of necessity beyond the ability of the characters to avert it.

Bowling’s staging seemed diffuse, perhaps a little underrehearsed on opening night. The elements were all there, though, and I have no doubt that the show has pulled itself together by now. Coburn Goss is a charmingly obnoxious Joe, wearing his self-righteousness like a foolscap while others try their best to steer him toward their versions of growing up. Those others include H.B. Ward as the editor, amusingly gruff but also pained as he copes with the new rules of the news game. As Joe’s love interest, Tessa, Eleni Pappageorge’s rather spectacular sexiness is tempered by her developing ambivalence toward her work in digital demography: on the one hand calling the Tank Man a consumer by virtue of the bags he held in his hands (“The Tank Man . . . has been shopping!”), while on the other sensing just how creepy that is.

Norman Yap’s Zhang Lin is hapless, funny, and finally much more, his performance greatly enhanced by that of Wai Yim as Lin’s fatherly older brother, Zhang Wei. The relationship between these two is among the tenderest, truest things I’ve seen on a stage in a long time. v

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect what took place on June 5, 1989, at Tiananmen Square.