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BEIJING — One night in December 2011 I found myself sitting in a freezing theater south of Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital watching an American play about press freedoms and government control. The play, “Top Secret: Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” portrayed in fictional terms the legal fight by The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers over the vigorous objections of the Nixon administration. It was written by Geoffrey Cowan — a former dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California and former director of Voice of America — and Leroy Aarons.
The publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 by The New York Times and The Post, which revealed official misjudgments and cover-ups in the United States government’s war effort in Vietnam, is a touchstone in modern American journalism, alongside Watergate and battlefield coverage of the Vietnam War. All those events put a spotlight on what many see as the most important mission of the news media in American society — challenging authority at the highest levels and pushing back against government censorship.
So of course it was a bit of a surprise to see the play performed in China, where the Communist Party goes to great lengths to try to corral domestic and foreign journalists and disseminate propaganda. The tour had had its difficulties — objections had been raised in some official quarters in China. Nevertheless, the night I saw the play, reaction from the audience, mostly young Chinese with some foreigners, was enthusiastic. Several Chinese undergraduate journalism students said afterward that they had thoroughly enjoyed it.
Even more surprising is the fact that the play is back again in China, and this time it is being performed in Beijing at the National Center for the Performing Arts, which, just west of Tiananmen Square, is the most prestigious venue of its kind in China.
The current China tour began on May 23 in Hangzhou. It has just arrived in Beijing on June 4 for a three-show run. Those familiar with recent Chinese history will notice the interesting coincidence in the timing — June 4 is the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which hundreds or thousands of people were killed around the square after party leaders decided to forcefully end pro-democracy protests by students and other ordinary Chinese. The party and the state have banned any mention of the event and suppressed the nation’s collective trauma.
As the play wrapped up its shows in Hangzhou, Suzhou and Tianjin and prepared to come to the capital, I had an exchange with its two producers, Susan Albert Loewenberg, producing director of L.A. Theatre Works, and Alison M. Friedman, founder of Ping Pong Productions and a longtime Beijing resident.
Q. The world of media and politics is very different now than when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers. What makes this subject relevant today?
A. LOEWENBERG Funny you should ask. It seems to me it’s déjà vu all over again. If I were an A.P. reporter right now, I would be most interested in exactly what transpired back in 1971. Good journalists still believe — as Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham did — in the sanctity of responsible truth-telling. What the play compellingly portrays is critical and courageous decision-making, and the importance of judgment.
FRIEDMAN I actually don’t think the world is that different. There are still the same tensions between the government and the media. The play is just as relevant now because we’re still dealing with the same issues, only with even more media and information outlets.
Q. You’ve had several performances now in China on this tour. What has been the reaction here? What do Chinese audiences grasp on to when they watch the play?
A. LOEWENBERG The audiences are virtually all young and Chinese ages 20-35. Very few expats. That was true of the last tour as well. There is a speech at the end of the play by George Wilson who says, “We didn’t do this for the giants of journalism, we did it for the little guy out there in some little town trying to report the truth.” Our young audience was very affected by that observation. It definitely seemed to resonate with them.
FRIEDMAN I’m always impressed by how much audiences understand watching a play in a different language. We have Chinese subtitles, but you can tell from the laughs that many are following the English. We had a post-show discussion in Tianjin with the cast and we were expecting questions about the stars and their lives, but almost all of the questions were about the issues raised in the play. The audience members wanted our opinions, wanted answers to the questions raised. But the play does a great job presenting the questions, letting the complexities come out, without necessarily answering them directly, and the audience seemed to really grasp that.
Q. Your previous tour in China ran into some difficulties.
A. LOEWENBERG You can say that again. Alison and I spent a harrowing weekend trying to do damage control after learning that we were in danger of being canceled because tickets had been sold in Beijing before the venue had received their permit. We kept the news from the cast and our author until the tour was out of danger, although other problems continued to plague us.
Q. Tell me more about the obstacles on that tour.
A. FRIEDMAN Two of the 10 post-play discussions were canceled, one on the morning of the show in Guangzhou at Sun Yat-sen University and the other by text to me during the intermission at Peking University.
Q. Were any of these a result of reaction to the play by officials?
A. FRIEDMAN The talk at Sun Yat-sen University was canceled by their Foreign Affairs Office, and the Peking University talk was canceled by one venue manager who got nervous. As for the rest of the obstacles …
LOEWENBERG We will never know.
Q. Given the previous problems here in China, it’s surprising to me that you were able to secure one of the most prestigious performance spaces in Beijing, the National Center for the Performing Arts. How did that come about?
A. FRIEDMAN I had approached the NCPA about the tour in 2011, but they were concerned about the commercial viability of an historical docudrama. They didn’t think it would sell. However, our success in 2011 gave them the confidence to book LATW as the first American theater company they have presented.
LOEWENBERG The 2011 tour was a commercial success for all of our local partners. L.A. Theatre Works is able to bring American actors well known to Chinese audiences. Also as a result of the 2011 tour, the Radio Beijing Network has carried our weekly public radio show since January 2012, except it airs daily! The Chinese don’t do anything half-way.
Q. How else has this tour been different from the previous one?
A. LOEWENBERG In contrast to the first tour, we were able to attract corporate sponsors including China Southern Airlines and the Marriott Hotels as well as performance fees from the presenters. There also has been much more attention from the Chinese press.
FRIEDMAN This time, China really rolled out the red carpet. The venues were eager to welcome back a successful show, and we are pleased to be able to reach a broader audience at major venues in all six cities.
LOEWENBERG Phoenix Television is doing a documentary on the show which will air throughout China and in Hong Kong in July.
Q. What is your take on the state of Chinese journalism?
A. FRIEDMAN In 2011 I worked closely with Chinese journalists to set up the post-performance discussions. I was struck then by their integrity, openness and courage. This was in contrast to the prevalent stereotype of state-controlled journalism. The press conferences this year and the requests for stories have reinforced my experience from 2011.
LOEWENBERG In 2011 Hu Shuli, China’s most prominent investigative journalist and editor-in-chief of Caixin Media, sponsored our appearance at Sun Yat-sen University where she is also dean of the journalism school. She is bringing 50 dignitaries to the three performances at NCPA, including high-ranking government and finance ministry officials.
Q. What has been the reaction of the actors to performing for Chinese audiences?
A. LOEWENBERG We have a great cast. They are doing a terrific job and are thrilled to be performing in China. The audiences are in for a real treat.
FRIEDMAN They love playing to young audiences, and as one of the actors, Darren Richardson, wrote to us about opening night in Hangzhou: “The crowd was lively, active and excited. Cameras and cell phone texting the whole time which in the USA would be distracting but here was exciting as I knew it meant we were hitting social media in a big way, this is how the youth connect now, and boy did we connect last night!”
LOEWENBERG By the time we reached Tianjin a week later, information about the play had gone viral on Weibo.
Q. What kinds of interactions have taken place between the actors and the audiences?
A. LOEWENBERG In Suzhou, we did a workshop with a group of theater students who performed a short play for us in English, and we gave them feedback. Then we did a scene from “Top Secret,” and then we all sat around chatting and taking photos and videos. They all came to the show that night and came backstage. In Tianjin, we had a really interesting post-play Q-and-A with the audience. The conversation ranged from queries about the actors’ careers to very substantive questions about the content of the play. They were particularly interested in my explanation of the free and independent American judicial system, which is such an important aspect of this play.