|Quincy, MA, February 11, 2007 - This February 15th-17th, the Eastern Nazarene College Theatre Department will be performing Chinese absurdist playwright Gao Xingjian’s The Other Shore. Gao was one of the first Chinese playwrights to enter world theatre. His plays have been performed in France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, the United States, and in other Chinese communities such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Gao’s work is so influential that he became the first Chinese Nobel Laureate.
Gao wrote The Other Shore in 1986 in response to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. During this time "the attack on Chinese traditional culture in the name of the revolution resulted in the public prohibition and burning of books," said Gao in his Nobel acceptance speech. "Countless writers were shot, imprisoned, exiled or punished with hard labor. This was more extreme than in any imperial dynastic period of China’s history." Chinese writers faced a choice: "either to fall silent or to flee."
As a result of the revolution, explains ENC director Adrienne Macki, Gao "was moved to a ‘camp’ and given a different job where he wouldn’t be as politically volatile." He burned many of his own works to prevent their confiscation. The government banned his writing, including The Other Shore, which was intended for performance by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. After only a month, government officials shut down rehearsals. The play, argued Gao’s enemies, contained politically sensitive material. He retreated to France where he was finally free to write.
During this trying time, Gao discovered why his life’s work was so essential. In his Nobel acceptance speech he explained, "Literature is inherently man’s affirmation of the value of his own self." He continued, "literature does not simply make a replica of reality but penetrates the surface layers and reaches deep into the inner workings of reality; it removes false illusions, looks down from great heights at ordinary happenings, and with a broad perspective reveals happenings in their entirety." The Other Shore is not just an experimental play, but rather a reflection on what society does to the individual, or more specifically what General Mao did to the Chinese people.
Gao’s title, The Other Shore (Bi’an), refers to paramita or nirvana, the land of Enlightenment in Buddhism. In this tradition one is able to cross from the shore of delusion and suffering to the shore of enlightenment by perfecting the paramita virtues. The Other Shore, explains Macki, is the allegorical story of man’s (spiritual) journey, "his dreams and obstacles, his trials and suffering, and the struggle to define his identity independent of the collective. It is a philosophical play about man’s awakening and the dangers of language and power."
In looking over possible play choices, The Other Shore kept rising to the surface. Last spring ENC’s Intercultural Performance class, taught by adjunct professor and director Macki, studied the play. Around the same time another contemporary Chinese play, Heads or Tails, was performed at Tuffs University and attended by Intercultural Performance students. "I think there was a lot of excitement after seeing that production last spring," notes Macki. "We loved how they were able to make this very bizarre text come to life, and we believed we could do something like that."
The universal themes in the play attracted Macki a great deal. Even though it is a product of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Macki finds parallels to other violent and criminal acts against humanity; "I think you can look at this play as sort of a reminder of what happened in Nazi Germany, what happened after Pearl Harbor and what we did to Japanese Americans in camps, and some of the more inhumane acts that we as a society have inflicted upon each other."
It is a work of experimental theatre. Macki encourages her audiences to come in with an open mind. She says that it’s not the "kind of play that has a beginning, middle and logical end." There is not a definite hero and there are many types of villains. She says, "I do not expect anyone to walk in here and get it, because we’re all still trying to get it." She admits that it will be strange to see actors moving around in non-traditional ways, however she encourages her audience to keep an open mind.
In respect to her audience, Macki hopes that they might not just watch, which is what the characters in the play do heedlessly. She hopes audience members analyze their own role in society and are called to action. "Too often they (the crowd) watch and they don’t act. I think we all need to take a more active role in our lives and in the world around us, in some of the other cases of oppression and tyranny that exist, and really push for a better world."