In 2010, I was asked to lecture in China, on American playwrights from 1970-2010. My host was a professor in Nanjing who was publishing the first book on the topic ever written in China, in conjunction with his female graduate students. I am a playwright of Portuguese descent, who lives and works in the U.S. and Canada. Preparing my research and lectures was like asking a fish to describe the rivers she’d been swimming in her whole life. When I arrived in China, my energetic and extremely knowledgeable host asked me a question, which was more of a statement, “you must think China a very backward country.”
He said this as we traversed two of the most staggeringly huge cities on the planet, Nanjing and Shanghai, a commute involving hours of subway riding, one of the highest speed trains in the world, and a cab trip to the “Nanjing Expert Hotel” on the campus of the beautiful, garden like Nanjing Normal University. I had been travelling for twenty- four hours, the last part through the dizzying, high tech maze of modern China. I suspected my host was asking me this so I would compliment him on the modernity of Chinese cities. I did. I longed to tell him what I actually found innovative, but these subjects are dangerous in contemporary China. I knew Liu Xiaobo of Beijing Normal University (my host’s sister university), had recently been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China,” but the Chinese government did not let him out of jail to attend the ceremony.
Meanwhile, preparing my lectures had given me an entirely new outlook on American and Canadian theatre. (I added the Canadians.) I am often asked to speak on panels addressing the dismal statistics on women in the theatre or the need for inclusion of writers from Native and Latino/a communities. I was surprised to discover the story of Northern American theatre could also be considered a successful battle for free speech, theatres’ positive impact on social policy, and the inclusion of writers who are women, LBGT, Latino/a, Asian, African American and from a variety of other cultures. How did I come to these conclusions? I started with two treasured moments that inspired me to get into the theatre. Then I researched how they happened. The first moment was remembering when Sam Shepard was the playwright-in-residence at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. Many of us who grew up in the Bay Area at that time loved his wild adventurous writing. It made us feel we could do, say anything. My research quickly reminded me his wildness was hard won. The Magic’s writer-in- residence immediately before Shepard was Michael McClure, who was arrested along with his cast for putting on his play, The Beard. McClure was made an example of in the ongoing fight for free speech involving Lenny Bruce, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
The second moment that inspired me to get into the theatre was seeing Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice at San Jose Repertory Company, a play commissioned and created by the Eureka Theater, chronicling Dan White’s trial for his assassination of San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk (the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California) and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. The play put the community on trial. Remembering this galvanizing theatrical moment led me to explore our plays that affect social policy, from John Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes (one of the most produced Canadian plays, which influenced prison reform and raised awareness for gay rights) to The Lamarie Project to Marie Humber Clements’ The Unnatural and Accidental Women. I was delighted to introduce my colleagues in China to the work of many writers I adore –Alice Tuan, Chay Yew, Erik Ehn, Suzan Lori-Parks, current works of David Henry Hwang, Luis Valdez, the NEA 4, Caridad Svich, Luis Alfaro, Lynn Nottage, Panagaea Arts and many others.
Even our strong tradition of “family plays” contains potent critique on the effect of capitalism, discrimination, and war. By this point, although I joked about it, I was worried I might end up on a reality television show about North Americans who did stupid things and ended up arrested in other countries. I decided to focus on our culture, and let them dissect us as they may. I let them broach their views on these subjects in China. But my host’s remark stayed with me. Did I think China backward? Not at all. What did I consider innovative?
Through this lens, I learned that, due to global warming, Shanghai/Nanjing/Beijing are becoming unbearably hot in the summers, and Shanghai is beginning to sink. Everywhere we went, people were wearing surgical facemasks, some with “Hello Kitty” or checkerboard designs on them. This practice, initially to prevent the spread of colds, has been expanded to include avoiding sickness due to air pollution. The United States and China together account for 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.
At a banquet a group of male professors held in my honor (somewhat awkwardly, as I was a rarity, a woman professor) some addressed the passion for progress. These professors were all peasants who had been supported in becoming academics, under Mao. We found a point of commonality, as my grandparents were also peasants in rural Portugal. My grandfather immigrated to North America in search of an education. One colleague stated that he found the rampant desire for modernity in China related to the tough realities of a rural childhood, “if you have starved in your youth, you can never make enough money.” Later, I learned that this remark likely had to do with how much rural people suffered during the Great Leap Forward, which these professors would have certainly endured (from 1958-1961).
There is such a desire to be au courant. But does this drive go beyond the latest iteration of the iPhone? To be truly of the moment, why don’t we make theatre for and about today’s transnational realities?
What I find innovative is wind energy, solar panels, ideas to save us in our environmental crisis (including small steps like Blackout Theatre of Albuquerque New Mexico projecting their programs onto a screen rather than printing them), saving bees (an actress friend has written a novel about this), workers’ rights, and work which addresses the disappearance of 50% of our planet’s indigenous cultures and languages in the next 100 years. I recently got to work on Pangaea Arts next play, a collaboration with an Inuit Storyteller, Michael Kusugak. His stories contain powerful metaphors about the dangers of selfishness and cruel behavior, a reverence for the sea as the source of food and life. Some lines in the stories might even be 1000 years old, and the meanings of the stories are told, contemplated, debated from Alaska to Greenland. As ancient as this work is, I find it utterly progressive.
What I find innovative is the work of China’s own Ai Wei Wei and Liu Xiaobo. Despite the risk of imprisonment, Ai Wei Wei commemorated the lives of thousands of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, due to shoddy construction of their school– even though the Chinese government made it quite difficult for him to find out what happened. (see Alison Klayman’s documentary, “Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry.”) For his show in Munich, Germany, Ai Wei Wei made a piece out of 9000 children’s backpacks spelling out “she lived happily for seven years in this world,” a quote from one of the mothers who lost her child. What I find progressive is Nobel Peace Prize winner’s Liu Xiaobo’s stance that he has “no enemies, no hatred.” What I find innovative is my host in China’s ability to educate his cadre of all female graduate students who were impassioned about all things to do with North American playwrights. Each graduate student was in charge of a different chapter in the upcoming book. One was madly in love with Maria Irene Fornes, another with Tony Kushner, another with Ntozake Shange. These students asked me why they didn’t get to write plays like North American graduate students, so I added a short playwriting exercise to the end of my lecture. The subjects they chose to write about were achingly powerful, including one play about going home to explain a computer to a grandfather who lives on a mountaintop.
We in Canada and the U.S. certainly have a powerful history of the theatre being a place for social debate and political change. The movements of seventies to include writers from many cultural backgrounds and gender identities may have been imperfect, but they have yielded results. Since 2000, two African American women (Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage) and two Latinos (Nilo Cruz, Quiara Alegría Hudes) have won the Pulitzer Prize. What I find innovative is celebrating and continuing with the strides we have made. Produce a new play; develop a new initiative about something that matters to you. Let’s keep this alive.
Elaine Avila’s award winning plays are performed in Central America (National Theatre of Panamá, Teatro Lagartija); Canada, (Canadian Centre for Theatre Creation, Theatre SKAM); New York (Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, Hybrid Theatre Works, Occupy the Empty Space); the U.S.; France; and London, England. Publications: NoPassport Press (Jane Austen Action Figure and other Plays, in 24 Gun Control Plays edited by Caridad Svich and Zac Kline), Canadian Theatre Review, Howlround, American Theater, Contemporary Theatre Review, Lusitania. She is a Playwrights Theatre Centre Associate and was recently distinguished as a Notáveis dos Açores for her theatre work by the Government of the Azores, Portugal.