By Erin Crandell
The most iconic image to come out of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacare is “Tank Man.” The image of one man in a white button up shirt carrying two shopping bags was broadcast around the world, and used as a symbol of hope for a Western world that was weary of fighting a dying communist threat. The Chinese government heavily censored the media that came in and out of the country, so no one in the West really found out how many students were killed or injured in that event and its aftermath, or what happened to its most recognizable martyr.
What Studio Theatre’s Chimerica supposes is, maybe he wasn’t a martyr in the purest sense of the word. Maybe he survived somewhere, took his groceries home and just became a functioning member of the new China. Or maybe he fled to America, to join the thousands of Chinese restaurant-workers in New York City. What would you ask him if you could find him?
Over twenty years after taking the iconic shot from a hotel window, New York photojournalist Joe Schofield (played by Ron Menzel) embarks on a quest to find the Tank Man. Idealistic and naïve, Joe becomes obsessed with finding the Tank Man after his Chinese friend Zhang Lin (played by Rob Yang) mentions that he knew him, and that he might still be alive in New York. Joe works for an anonymous newspaper (presumably the New York Times), and uses his connections and the help of his reporter friend Mel (Lee Sellars) to comb through New York’s Chinese community.
Because imagine that, an iconic figure from world history living in Flushing, New York and selling flowers for a living. The headline writes itself. To sell papers, the story turns into an expose of the American consciousness. Kind of like Joshua Bell playing in the subway stations but for Chinese enemies of the State. But even though Joe thinks that he is making a difference and changing the world by finding Tank Man, Zhang Lin knows that the only difference he can make is by easing the pain of his neighbor dying of “Beijing lung.” As Joe’s quest continues and Zhang keeps living his life in Beijing, the audience realizes that while the Western world is comfortable recognizing and idealizing martyrs from the past, there are a lot of everyday heroic moments that get swept under the rug.
This show perfectly captures the struggle between trying to make a name for yourself and trying to make a difference, which is perfect for a DC audience. Everyone recognizes their idealistic young friend who wants to make their name and change the world like Joe does, or their friend gone corporate in Joe’s love interest Tessa (Tessa Klein), who works for an anonymous credit card company trying to break into the Chinese market. My personal favorite was Paul Morella’s performance as news editor Frank; caught on the cusp of journalism’s pivot towards news as a commodity rather than a public good, and generally exhausted by Joe’s quests for justice. He embodies a much-needed kick in the pants.
The work of the other members of the ensemble cast was certainly impressive. The eight of them managed to present over twenty complete characters throughout the play. Costuming certainly played a very big role in making that happen, but all the actors should be recognized for their ability to jump from dramatic to comic relief with ease, minimizing the confusion that can sometimes come from ensembles in a small-venue setting.
The venue may be small but the show’s ambitions are huge. The set is incredible. Set designer Blythe R. D. Quinlan has created a two-tiered structure that seamlessly transitions from Zhang Lin’s Beijing apartment to Joe’s sparse Manhattan abode. The set also acts as a projecting surface in key moments, which gives the audience a sense of the scale and lasting power of Tank Man.
Everyone who has taken a history class in the last twenty-five years can recognize that picture. It was a 9/11 moment, an Arab Spring moment, David Hasselhoff singing on top of the Berlin Wall. Forming a fictionalized backstory to such an iconic moment and then having it run all the way into modern times takes guts, and writer Lucy Kirkwood, the cast, and the director David Muse have done a tremendous job.