By Roland Byagaba
This production covers a lot. I know of Chairman Mao, but that’s as far as it goes…his name. I thought of reading up on him before watching this but time wasn’t sufficient as his Wikipedia page is like a 30-minute read. I still haven’t dug into it as I write this but I’ve made a promise to myself to have done so by the time the second showing happens. That day, I’ll have more context to this play.
I don’t remember who told me this but apparently, Robert Lin, the writer and star of this play, spent over 10 years researching this play. And from the amount of insight the play reveals about Mao’s personal life, all this research is evident.
The play has three narrators i.e. one of Mao’s bodyguards (who does the introduction), Jiang Qing (his wife), and Mao himself, all played by Lin. Whereas Lin’s resemblance to Mao makes that section particularly interesting to watch, I personally thought he outdid himself when playing the Qing. Anytime a man plays a lady and pulls it off, you have to give them the due respect. And the part where he broke off into song, that was hilariously fascinating to watch. As a typical Ugandan born in the late 80 – 90’s, we watched a fair share of Chinese kungfu movies and their accompanying Chinese folk music soundtracks. Seeing and hearing someone do it live left a big smile on my face.
Since I haven’t read further about the person of Mao, I am not sure how accurate the play is. The way it paints Mao and his wife as petty gave the play a twisted sense of humour. The wife processing Mao’s infidelity and deciding she couldn’t leave him in spite of that was very telling on how absorbed by the attached power being the first lady gave her. Also, her part in shaping the Chinese Cultural revolution is very central yet her pettiness can make one easily downplay it. Her eventual fate as shown in the play left me wondering if she an ambitious lady with her own mind, or was all of it done in an effort to rekindle the closeness she shared with Mao when they’d just started courting?
Mao, on the other hand, comes off as a well read intelligent man and reluctant leader who is very whimsical about his decision making. The way he is constantly paranoid about those around him and their intentions highlights the loneliness one must feel when at the top. Maybe this explains why he chooses to confide in the staff around him. Could it be that their lack of ambition and adoration of him mad him to regard them as harmless? In fact, if you take away the ideological monologues, the play can easily be seen as a take on how differently Mao and his wife interacted with the common folk they interacted with.
The monologues are many and touch on different topics and the play heavily relies on them to push the plot. But because of the quantity and length, I can’t remember all that was said regarding Chinese culture, communism, international relationships between China and the west, etc…which is why my attention ended up zeroing in on the relationships between the Mao’s, and the people they interacted with. The other stuff needs a deeper understanding of Chinese history to appreciate. Some audience members that were Chinese seemed to resonate with it very much so based off that, I’ll proceed to assume it’s close enough to the reality at that time.
I, on the hand, will be doing more reading on Mao, and giving more thought to whether wealth and power change us or just magnify traits we already had and were keeping suppressed.
Photo by James Wasswa