RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This week in Beijing, theater fans saw the first-ever Chinese production of "A Raisin In The Sun." The play is a classic. It's about a Black family in 1950 Chicago. So how does an all-Chinese cast pull that off? NPR's Emily Feng spent a week backstage, and she brought us this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, BELL DINGING)
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: This Beijing People's Art Theatre's production of "A Raisin In The Sun" begins with a lost script.
YING DA: I didn't know my mother translated this one. She never mentioned it when she was alive.
FENG: That's Ying Da, a well-known Beijing actor and the director of this production. His mother, Wu Shiliang, loved the play, written by Lorraine Hansberry, and translated it into Chinese in 1963. But the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long ideological purge, soon hit China. In the chaos, the publisher lost the handwritten manuscript. Then last year, a friend reached out.
YING: He WeChatted me and told me that there is a script on auction. The translator's name is Wu Shiliang - isn't that your mom? I said, yeah.
FENG: Ying Da bought the script and immediately planned to stage it.
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FENG: The thorniest challenge, however - making it clear to a Chinese audience they're watching an African American family, albeit one played by a cast of Chinese actors only speaking Mandarin. Historically, Chinese theater solves this by using what we might call blackface. Ying Da knows the history America has with minstrel shows and exoticizing racial caricatures.
YING: I gave it a lot of thought. A lot of my friends - even my son - warned me about this. But you have to find the balance, that point in between the Chinese understanding and America's opinions. Without any makeup, a Chinese audience would be confused because they don't see too much Black people.
FENG: The first-ever Chinese production of a foreign play was "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in 1907, starring actors in midnight black face paint and curly wigs. Later, Chinese theaters would add chin or nose prosthetics to actors playing foreigners. But though potentially offensive now, this makeup was done as a sign of empathy and realism.
CLAIRE CONCEISON: The goal for this realistic makeup in China is to as closely simulate an authentic kind of representation of a foreigner as possible even though this is not possible.
FENG: This is Dr. Claire Conceison, a professor at MIT and an expert on contemporary Chinese theater.
In the past, different theatrical practices have led to a culture clash, like in 1983 when Ying Da's father, actor and director Ying Ruocheng, helped playwright Arthur Miller to stage his play "Death Of A Salesman" in Beijing. To play the Loman family from Brooklyn in that play, the Chinese actors planned to don wigs.
CONCEISON: And Miller was kind of horrified (laughter) by the wigs that they were showing him because he wasn't really prepared to see the Chinese actors with, you know, blond wigs.
FENG: But the Chinese cast were bewildered when Miller got rid of the wigs.
CONCEISON: Was Miller liberating them from a practice that was outdated and problematic, or was he kind of embodying a kind of American neo-imperialism that was grafting our political views and practice?
FENG: With "A Raisin In The Sun," Ying Da reopens a conversation about how race is perceived in the U.S. and China. And he consulted with Conceison and with Harvey Young, a theater historian and a dean at Boston College (ph). Young points out, Lorraine Hansberry's play has long been a theater classic. Does that mean any actor, regardless of ethnicity and complexion, can play the African American characters?
HARVEY YOUNG: Once you become part of the canon, how does that work travel? Right? Are there limitations that need to be placed on a production of "Fences" or "A Raisin In The Sun" as it moves from the U.S. to Italy, to China, to Brazil? And that's what we're wrestling with because we now expect anyone can play a Shakespeare role.
FENG: In the end, Ying Da settled on lightly bronzing the actors' faces and adding wigs full of curls and cornrows. The look is more impressionistic than realistic. It signals the character's Blackness while simultaneously acknowledging the theatrical artifice. The one Caucasian character gets a snow white wig.
FENG: Late this August, the cast has their first stage rehearsal in full costume and wigs. They're well aware of the gravity of putting on this play amid a heated global conversation about anti-Black racism. I ask Ying Da if that's why he decided to stage this play.
YING: No. It's not that important here. I mean, this is probably a terrible thing to say to Americans.
FENG: Instead, it's the themes of class inequality in Southside Chicago that come across sharp and clear in south Beijing-accented Mandarin. Here's Xu Jingyao, who plays Ruth Younger, the play's mother, struggling to raise her family in a cramped Chicago apartment.
XU JINGYAO: (Through interpreter) We want to act out the essentials of human nature - the yearning for freedom, happiness - that don't differ between race and nationality.
FENG: But she also says the specificity of Hansberry's writing and Shiliang's translation give Chinese audiences access to 1950s Chicago.
XU: (Through interpreter) I could immediately understand why we need to abandon racial and class oppression - though that oppression is what gave rise to this play and also gives it its power.
FENG: The actors also say their makeup and costumes let them access an unfamiliar identity. Here's Wang Ning, the actor who plays Joseph Asagai, the Nigerian exchange student.
WANG NING: (Through interpreter) Acting is a little like putting on clothes - slowly getting into the skin of your character, filling your heart with the character's soul.
FENG: To feel closer to his character, Wang says he chose to perm his own hair rather than wear a wig. Jin Han, the actor playing Walter Lee Younger, the play's ambitious father, says right before a performance, he examines himself in the mirror in his wig and stage makeup.
JIN HAN: (Through interpreter) In that second, you suddenly believe I am that person. And that's when I charge onstage.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FENG: Onstage, where Chinese audiences might momentarily understand the triumphs and travails of an African American family so different yet so similar to themselves...
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, laughing) (Speaking Mandarin).
FENG: Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this story, as well as in a previous Web version, Harvey Young is mistakenly referred to as the dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston College. He is a dean at Boston University.]
(SOUNDBITE OF MAKAYA MCCRAVEN'S "MANTRA")
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