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As a government institution, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts bears a unique responsibility towards artistic expression and international diplomacy. Host to the ambitious and renowned Stephen Sondheim Celebration in 2002 and the Tennessee Williams Explored Festival in 2004, the Center has established itself in recent years as the champion of American Theatre writ large and produced on a grand scale. But in an increasingly globalized world, the Kennedy Center also chooses not to maintain a strictly domestic focus. In October 2005, in partnership with the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China, the Center presented nearly nine hundred performers in a grand festival, four years in the making. The festival showcased ambassadors of myriad Chinese visual and performing arts traditions. Claimed by its organizers to be [End Page 504] the largest celebration of Chinese performing arts in American history, the Festival of China included eight American premieres. Lao She's Teahouse was among the most noteworthy.
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| Figure 1 |
Pu Cunxin (Master Chang), Liang Guanhua (Wang Lifa), and Yang Lixin (Qin Zhongyi) in Beijing People's Art Theatre's Teahouse. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.
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| Figure 2 |
Beijing People's Art Theatre's Teahouse. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.
The Beijing People's Art Theatre's production of Teahouse heralded the American debut of the company and Lao's play. Perhaps even more significantly, the production marked the first time that hua ju, or modern Chinese spoken drama, was performed in the United States. In selecting Teahouse for the festival, the Beijing People's Art Theatre chose to remount what has been a cornerstone of its producing repertoire spanning the company's fifty-year history, a play that has remained popular since its premiere in 1958. The influence of the period in which Lao wrote is reflected in Teahouse through proclamations such as "Do Not Discuss Affairs of State" that adorn the theatre walls. Succumbing to the pressures of such implied persecution at the onset of the Cultural Revolution, Lao committed suicide in 1966.
Spanning half a century, the play chronicles the vast social and political changes endured by the ordinary citizens who frequent Beijing's Yu Tai Teahouse. From the fall of the Qing Dynasty after the Reform Movement of 1898 to the founding of the Republic and ensuing civil war, to the harsh policies of Chiang Kai-shek following the War of Resistance against Japan, the play feels epic in scope even as daily affairs are conducted within the gradually aging walls of the teahouse. Manager Wang Lifa tries to adapt his hospitality to the turbulence of the changing times, but ultimately they prove too much to bear and, at the play's end, with a ceremonial toss of funeral papers, he deliberately picks up a sash and exits the stage.
Teahouse is known and studied in China in much the same way as Death of a Salesman is in the United States (not coincidentally, Arthur Miller directed a production of his play at the Beijing People's Art Theatre in 1983). The Kennedy Center foregrounded this esteemed component of the Chinese dramatic canon, in part to mark the centenary of the birth of its original director, Jiao Juyin, one of the four founders of the Beijing People's Art Theatre and a highly influential director, theorist, and translator. Jiao's contribution to the Chinese theatre is most deeply embedded in his commitment to a nationalized poetic realism, a form that merged traditional Chinese drama with Western performance traditions. His 1958 production of Teahouse, an exemplary model of this blending, has been hailed as a masterpiece.
Painstakingly recreated from Jiao's work by director Lin Zhaohua, the production at the Kennedy Center featured several of the most prominent stage and screen actors working in China today, including Liang Guanhua as Manager...