Chimerica, a play written by British playwright, Lucy Kirkwood and directed by Chris Abraham is currently at the Bluma Appel Theatre. Presented by Canadian Stage and Royal Manitoba theatre.
This critically acclaimed play received many awards when it first opened in London. The play examines how an iconic visual image can have so many implications for so many people. The photograph of the man who stood in front of a tank, with shopping bags during the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, became a symbol of defiance against the Chinese government.
As a theatrical exploration of visual anthropology, Chimerica delves into the relationship between the visual form and its function. The role the photograph of the “Tank man” has played has allowed global viewers to sympathize or be inspired. Visual anthropologist, Gregory Bateson said ” If a man achieves or suffers change in premises which are deeply embedded in his mind, he will surely find that the results of that change will ramify throughout his whole universe.”
The play opens by giving the back story of how the iconic photograph was captured. We follow the young American photojournalist, Joe Shofied (Evan Builing), who captured this historical moment from the adjacent Beijing Hotel. Many of the original photos of this scene were actually taken from this hotel which had the best vantage point.
Joe is the epitome of the gonzo Journalist. He is a self absorbed, insensitive man. He so used to seeing life through a lens that without it he cannot see the reality of the lives his actions affect. Even his girlfriend (Laura Condlln), a British marketing specialist working in China to help exploit its consumer market, questions his motives. He embodies selfish journalism under the guise of illuminating oppression. His prime directive is exposure like the photographs he captures.
Fast forward 23 yrs. from his famous “Tank man” shot to 2012. Joe is till basking in past glory of having been one of the photographers on the scene. He is alerted by a notice in a Beijing newspaper that leads him on a journey for truth and reconciliation. He reconnects with an old friend, Zhang Lin (Paul Sun Hyung Lee), who loves what China could be but not what it is. Zhang has his own demons and he descends into flashes of the past which appear driven by post traumatic stress. Zhang’s brother (Richard Lee), works within the system and does not want to rock the political boat.
The characters highlight the contradictions of their respective political systems. America is lambasted for excess and China is praised as an economic giant, but vilified for the price paid.
This play continues its lesson in visual anthropology with stunning visuals. They are stark and real film footage is used as a backdrop. Black and white documentary style evoke the seriousness of the history changing event. The riveting Lazy Susan style stage set design turns the audience back and forth efficiently through time and place.
The mystery of what happened that day in Tiananmen Square keeps you engaged to the end. What happens to a man who defies his country in front of the world? The play studies the implications and meaning that surround a single defiant act captured in a photograph. The consequences of the participants actions and the role of mass media. We learn that everything has a price.