By DMAE ROBERTS
Lingering scenes haunt me: The tears of a man who realizes he’s wasted time pining for an idealized woman while his wife waits for him to love her. A mythical fisherman once unhappy dances in delight catching butterflies as peach blossoms fall from above.
It would take little effort to heap praise on Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land. Written and directed by Stan Lai, hailed as the most produced Chinese language playwright in the world, the play at Oregon Shakespeare Festival has a strong multiracial cast and beautiful production values. Much like the complexity of Taiwan’s history, the play has many layers and splits into three overlapping storylines. The first is set in 1949 when Nationalist Chinese fled their civil war and escaped to Taiwan. The second takes place in the heart of the mythical land of Peach Blossom. A contemporary narrative pits two production companies trying to produce their shows in the same stage space at OSF in 2015.
Lai deftly handles all three stories while at the same time making references to OSF, multiracial casting, the history of Taiwan and himself as a writer and director. As the most popular contemporary play in China with more than a thousand unauthorized productions, it’s a rare opportunity to view this first professional production in America of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land.
When I learned that OSF was bringing Lai to Ashland to direct his work, I was eager to talk with Lai about his experience adapting this much-loved work for American audiences.
Stan Lai is virtually unknown in America. Born in America, the Taiwanese playwright has had a handful of productions in New York City and Berkeley, but in Taiwan and mainland China he’s widely produced with more than 30 produced stage plays, many adapted to films and for television. In fact, after Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land opened at OSF, Lai whisked off to work on nine new productions of his previous plays in China this year alone. This wasn’t possible a couple of decades before.
Taiwan (Republic of China) and the mainland (People’s Republic of China) have had strained cross-strait relations since 1949 when Mao and his Red Army won the Chinese civil war. On face value the play is pure delight, and the theatre artist in me admires this work by a gifted playwright. But I also have to respond to this work as a Taiwanese-American writer. Between 1949 and 1987, after two million Chinese escaping the civil war fled China and essentially took over Taiwan, the nationalist government imprisoned and/or killed more than 140,000 Taiwanese as well as mainland Chinese. This became known as the White Terror period of martial law after 1949 when people who were viewed as the “intelligentsia” that threatened the conquering government.
For decades, Taiwan was the only recognized government for China in the United Nations, until Nixon normalized relations with communist China. At that point the U.S. pulled its embassy and armed forces out of the island nation, and Taiwan lost its UN seat. While the PRC doesn’t recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, in the last few years, there’s been an increase of business and artistic exchanges between the two countries. For Lai, it has been a major boon to work on his plays there and to explore the stories of families who were separated when people fled China to come to Taiwan. This is not only a central theme in Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land: Most of his plays contain this element because this was his family’s experience.
“There was a lot of tension and conflict between the Taiwanese and the mainlanders who came in 1949 as a defeated army,” says Lai. “But then as a sort of a conqueror…you see how people there before 1949 were targeted and eliminated. It’s really terrible.”
Looking at the “modern” play that tells the bittersweet love story of a couple separated by the flight from China’s civil war, I’m divided between appreciating the tears I shed over the unrequited love stories and my knowledge that it represents the divisive politics that divide the mainland Chinese and the Taiwanese who lived under the longest martial law only surpassed by the 48-years of Syrian martial law.
Many descendants of the Chinese who fled the mainland intermarried with Taiwanese, much like the unrequited love story in in Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land. The man pines for the first love he left in the mainland while rejecting the Taiwanese wife he married—a symbol of the complexity of being Taiwanese and Chinese.
Lai says his heart goes to all of the families that were involved in the White Terror oppression in Taiwan. But at the same time he admits he’s “closer to the suffering of the mainlanders.” In fairness, the nationalist government targeted mainly intellectuals and social elite and a good number of mainlanders were also killed or imprisoned.
Yet despite my mixed emotions, it’s clear this is a profound piece of art set in one moment of time drawn from the life experiences of one masterful playwright and director. Lai deftly turns these dark periods of history into bittersweet comedies in many of his plays. In China or Taiwan, Lai says, audiences have asked about the symbolism of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land since it premiered in 1986.
“Is it Taiwan or is it China?” Lai recounts some animated audience members have asked. “What kind of a political statement is that about the China -Taiwan situation you know? I’m sitting there sort of kind of chuckling saying ‘wow, are you guys overanalyzing this or what?’ But I also acknowledge the fact that, sure, of course, the stuff is built in to the play, and this is something that an American audience probably will not get and that’s OK with me.”
What Stan Lai did care about was creating a complex comedy that could easily have turned into a mass confusion of rotating storylines. He worked closely with Bill Rauch, OSF’s artistic director, to adapt his play with a multiracial cast for the first time.
Rauch is used to the emotional discussions that can occur when what is usually a monoracial play is adapted into one with multiple races. He says that OSF takes these “risks and leaps” because they open up difficult and ultimately rich conversations within the company. Rauch emphasized that to have a play as popular as Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land in its own land yet never produced professionally in America seemed an “injustice” and this play opens up the meaning of “classical” theatre.
“We have to expand our definition of what we mean by classical,” saied Rauch, “and that it’s not just the European classics, it’s not just the American classics, but it’s classics from traditions around the world.”
Though casting has been “looser” in the American productions of his plays, Lai says in Asia his plays have been performed only by Asians. But he embraced OSF’s multracial casting and even pokes fun at it as if to fend off critics who might point out that only five Asians are featured in the cast. At one point, one actor playing an Asian director criticizes the lack of Asians in the play, and then some of the actors point out there is only one actual Asian actor who is Chinese.
“I feel there’s a huge difference between, you know, Chinese and Japanese and Korean and Vietnamese and Thai,” Lai says. “How can you just use ‘Asian’ as an umbrella to say all of these things; and then you have a mixed Asian cast to me is the same as having a mixed racial cast period.”
To him, there is a big difference between how Asians view other races performing Asian roles in plays than how Asian Americans view it. Lai says in Asia, it’s a form of flattery when Westerners play Asian roles.
“Because we come from a weaker political entity coming from Taiwan and even from China, which is being bashed all over the world,” says Lai. “it’s totally honoring and respecting our culture to have people from different races perform.”
For Eugene Ma, the only Chinese actor in Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, it was also the first time he’d ever played his own identity or any Asian role. As an actor trained in Commedia dell’arte and physical theatre, he’s never played any particular race. He also speaks Chinese and was able to dissect the differences in humor in Chinese and English. He said that Lai was very specific about the punchline of jokes. Where in English slapstick-type movement might come after the line reading, in Chinese, it comes right on the last word. Ma was fascinated by Lai’s style of working as a director and his deep familiarity with his own play.
“He brings with him a long-running show for you know almost 30 years,” says Ma, “but it’s the history of the evolution of the multiple productions and also the movie, and then there were all these unauthorized productions. And it’s an amalgam of all of them that informs him to what this production can be.”
With Stan Lai’s play comes an increased commitment by OSF to produce more Asian American productions in the future. The 2016 season will feature Vietgone by Qui Nguyen and directed by May Andrales (who was the director of Portland Center Stage’s Chinglish by David Henry Hwang last year), as well as a version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale set in dynastic China and the American West directed by Seattle’s Desdemona Chiang. OSF is also hosting the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival on Sept. 29-Oct. 9, 2016.
“It’s a beautiful place for people to gather and convene and to have a conference,” says Rauch. “I really wanted to step up and make sure that Asian American artists would be well-represented in our season.”
Meanwhile Lai is booked till next year, and he loves that he is welcome and can work internationally in Taiwan, China and the U.S. And as his popularity grows, he finds himself moving away from “telling stories of specific places” but toward stories of “the human heart and soul.”
“I have been developing a project for years that still hasn’t been performed about stories from Buddhism,” says Lai, “and this would not be anywhere in a specific locale—perhaps done in the way that my play A Dream Like a Dream has been done with the audience in the center and then the play revolving around it.”
As Lai talks about his idea for a future play, the description is filled with the familiar complexity and layering that is central to his narrative as a theatre artist straddling the varied worlds of Taiwan and China. All the while he’s enjoying the independence of someone who has survived the age of censorship and the age of “anything goes.”
“I’ve found that as an artist then you have to respect that the freedom,” he says, “and you have a responsibility that comes with the freedom and … the stories that are most important to tell.”
Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land by Stan Lai runs through October 31, 2015, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. For more info visit: www.osf.org or call 800-219-8161.