Divining Madame Mao : Henry Ong’s ‘Madame Mao’s Memories’ has traveled the world, but after 10 years, the playwright continues to probe the life of Jiang Qing, wife of the famed Chinese leader and an intriguing figure in her own right
If politics makes strange bedfellows, theater can make stranger ones still.
Soft-spoken writer Henry Ong sits amid the tan Southwestern decor of his Silver Lake home. He is as subtle as the color scheme in this hillside sanctuary, a man with much regard for fact but little for sensationalism.
Jiang Qing, the woman whose life Ong portrays in his one-woman play “Madame Mao’s Memories,” is another matter entirely. Better known as Madame Mao Tse-tung, the ambitious ex-starlet was anything but subdued. She rose to power as one of the primary authors of China’s violent Cultural Revolution, only to spend her waning years in prison.
Yet the divergent sensibilities of this modest ex-journalist and the infamous member of the Gang of Four somehow complement each other. The proof opens at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre on Saturday, the third anniversary of the reported date of Jiang Qing’s death. Kim Miyori performs the title role, directed by Seret Scott.
Ong first wrote “Madame Mao’s Memories” in 1984, yet he has continued to refine the text over the years, up to and including his work for this new staging. Chalk it up to a longstanding interest in biography and a fascination with the life of his inherently dramatic subject.
Yet Ong’s perseverance also points to a notion of history that’s at odds with the trendy revisionism of Oliver Stone and others.
“I’ve always tried to be faithful to what I see as the facts; I don’t want to create a ‘Madama Mao,’ ” he said, alluding to Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” “I’m not saying that this is the ultimate version, but there’s an evolution in understanding someone. If you spend time, you see more layers to a person. I don’t know if there will ever be a time when I say, ‘This is Madame Mao.’ ”
Ong first became interested in Madame Mao during one of his periods of journalistic unemployment. He was taking one of his characteristic strolls through the biography section of a library when Ong came upon a book about Madame Mao.
“When I opened this biography, the first line I saw was ‘Let me dissect myself before you,’ ” he says. “This is what she said to the historian, Roxane Witke, who went to China to do research about women in China and found herself being summoned by Jiang Qing. I was struck by that one sentence. It doesn’t seem like normal conversation. It was more like something she rehearsed in her mind.”
So taken was Ong with the prospect of Madame Mao as a topic that he decided to buck his own insecurities and try his hand at a new type of writing.
“I always had that self-doubt,” he says. “I don’t really have the background to write plays. I didn’t go to school to study theater.
“Now, having the courage to admit a secret desire to write seems audacious. I could just see the scorn on people’s faces--’You want to be a playwright? Everybody wants to be a playwright.’ ”
Nonetheless, Ong began to work on a play. At first he envisioned it, perhaps even as a film, with the proverbial cast of thousands. He also toyed with the notion of making it a musical, a la “Evita.” Yet Ong ultimately settled on a one-person drama.
“Madame Mao’s Memories” features an older Jiang Qing in her prison cell, flashing back on the many and varied scenes in her life, including the 1970s trial of the Gang of Four.
The many shifts in time mean that Miyori has her task cut out for her. “The central challenge is to make it all of a piece,” the actress says. “The time jumps can be disconcerting. The clarity has to be there immediately in the first seconds of a scene, so that it’s clear what time in her life it is.”
Jiang Qing was born into a peasant family in 1914 and went on to train at the Shandong Experimental Arts Academy and to pursue an acting career. She married Mao in 1939, 10 years before he became chairman, and is remembered most for leading the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1965.
It is not a life with which someone like Ong would have an obvious connection--he was born and raised in Singapore and graduated from the University of Singapore with a degree in biology. “My parents wanted me to be a doctor and I had to prove to them I could do it,” he recalls. “I hated every minute of it.”
Ironically, the biology degree helped Ong land a scholarship to study agricultural journalism at Iowa State University, where he supported himself by writing about 4-H projects, cattle raising and similar topics.
His master’s thesis explored the relationship between journalism and biography, partly through a biography of his own grandfather, a colorful figure who practiced a number of religions before launching the first Bahai movement in Malaysia.
Upon graduation in 1979, Ong went on to pursue both journalism and biography, although journalism came first, if only because there were bills to be paid.
Ong, who gives his age only as “early 40s,” came to California in 1979 to look for a job. He worked for a small newspaper called the Cerritos Sun for two years before getting his green card and, after it folded, worked for Southern California Electronic News and then World Dredging in Long Beach. “I can’t even remember some of these papers that I worked for,” he says. “They either fold or they don’t have enough money to pay you.”
He also did a stint as editor of AsiAm magazine in L.A. “It’s a constant struggle,” he says. His last journalism gig was in 1989, as a writer and editor at the City Press, a Hollywood paper that went under after a year and half.
When he first began writing “Madame Mao’s Memories” in between journalism jobs, Ong knew it was an ambitious project.
“I finished it in a very secretive way, writing when I could,” he says. “And when I finished the first draft, I was afraid to show it to anyone.”
Eventually he did submit the work to 10 Los Angeles theaters. Nine months went by before “Madame Mao’s Memories” received a reading at the Cast Theatre in 1988. Yet the play, which has since been published by Three Continents Press, didn’t premiere until October, 1989, when it was staged in Theatre/Theater’s 24-seat second stage, starring Miyori and directed by Robin McKee.
That critically successful production ran for six months (a long run by L.A. small-theater standards) before moving to San Francisco’s Asian American Theater. The play was also later staged in 1990 at Chicago’s Bailiwick Theater and at Singapore’s Theatreworks, in 1991 at London’s Latchmere Theatre and in 1992 at the Edinburgh Festival. Last year, it was seen at the Telluride Theatre Festival in Colorado.
Ong saw all of these productions and, although he was not able to participate in the rehearsal processes of any of them, found the experience invaluable.
“It was a revelation to see how a script can be interpreted in different ways,” he says.
“The London production was stark, very British in a way.” Madame Mao was played by Tsai Chin (“The Joy Luck Club”), whose parents were killed during the Cultural Revolution.
“In Singapore, they had these red metal tubs that were half-filled with water surrounding the stage,” Ong says. “Every now and then she would play with the water. I didn’t understand the symbolism, but it was interesting. In Chicago, they had a white woman (Catherine Martineu, who died in 1991) play Madame Mao.”
In April, 1992, “Madame Mao’s Memories” returned to L.A. for a performance for at-risk students, funded by a City Cultural Affairs Department grant at Occidental College’s Keck Theatre. The grant also supported Ong’s retooling of the script in a workshop with Miyori and McKee.
“The original production was really more of a sketch than anything else and there were layers to Madame Mao that I wanted to explore,” Ong says. “Also, all of a sudden we were in a 400-seat theater, so we had to revamp the show. It became more abstract, and in a way I lost that intimacy.”
The changes that will bow in the Old Globe production, however, will be more substantive than any earlier ones. “It’s going to be very different from the original, closer to what I originally saw,” Ong says.
Scenes have been added, including one meant to show Madame Mao’s feelings of betrayal as she languished in a Russian hospital, after being effectively discarded by Mao. “There’s a lot more we could add,” Ong says. “But you have to draw the line somewhere, or else it will be a history lesson.”
Another pivotal new scene brings into focus the main change between this and previous versions of “Madame Mao’s Memories,” most of which were staged on shoestring budgets. It is what Ong calls Madame Mao’s “modus operandi,” her use of sexuality as a means to power.
Although known chiefly as one of the implementers of a bloody and excessive social upheaval that resulted in countless deaths and imprisonments, Madame Mao is also legendary for having had many lovers, some of whom were considerably younger than she was.
“The more I read about Madame Mao and thought about it, the more I found out that her way of gaining power--and power seems to be the main focus in her life--was through sex,” Ong says. “Basically, she used sex. She made no bones about it. As the script developed, this sexual aspect came into focus.”
“When she wanted to gain membership into the Communist Party (in 1933), there were hints that she actually used sex to meet different people so that she could become a member,” Ong says. “Of course with Mao, it was sexual. And when she came to power, sex became an expression of that power.”
Mao eventually lost interest in Jiang Qing sexually. Yet she was able to wield power of her own, using the leader’s weakened state in the wake of the failure of the Great Leap Forward against him. When Mao died in 1976, Madame Mao and three of her collaborators were put in prison. She died there in 1991.
Hers is a complex legacy that provides an actor with much food for thought.
“I was perhaps more forgiving initially,” Miyori says of how her attitude toward her character has changed since 1989. “It’s still what I call a woman’s play, about women’s politics. But despite the politics and oppression that women experienced during that time in China, it’s clear that she was an opportunist.”
The more Miyori has worked on Madame Mao, the more morally ambiguous her subject has begun to appear.
“Originally, I justified her motives more as being those of a woman who had been betrayed by Mao, but I think it’s a much larger story,” she says. “There’s a big question as to how much she really believed in communism.”
Another new aspect of the Globe production is an increased stylization. Not only are there now costume changes, but there is an added element of Chinese opera pageantry as well. Jamie H. J. Guan, a Peking Opera specialist who worked with Madame Mao’s opera troupe during the Cultural Revolution, has choreographed movements for Miyori.
Guan also has proved to be a source of some unusual firsthand anecdotes about Madame Mao. He has, for instance, told Ong and others of Madame Mao’s fascination with Hollywood movies, particularly those of Greta Garbo.
“When she wanted to reward her opera performers, she would have them into an auditorium to watch movies,” says Ong, reporting Guan’s stories. “One day, there was a hush-hush thing, and when they closed the door, what they saw was a porno movie.
“When they asked her why, she said: ‘Don’t ask questions, just open your lives. You must expose yourself to everything.’ To me, that was very interesting that she would do something like that. Was it partly to shock people? I don’t know. But it’s very revealing.”
During Madame Mao’s years in prison, the Chinese government did its best to keep her out of sight and mind. Yet Madame Mao, who once sought out a biographer to present her story to the West, was reportedly eager to be remembered.
It is therefore poignant that a Chinese American writer such as Ong would be the one to bring her story to the stage, and he has remained humbled by the task.
“When I first wrote ‘Madame Mao,’ I was terrified because I don’t speak Chinese,” Ong recalls. “I’m not a scholar of Chinese history. I was terrified that someone would come and say, ‘You got everything wrong, she’s not like that at all.’ ”
Miyori, who has continued to research her character, shares Ong’s passion for authenticity. But she’s also concerned about making compelling theater.
“I don’t want to be harnessed by making everything authentic,” she says. “It could limit the imagination when you’re trying to tell a story. But it’s also a disservice not to be as accurate as we can.”
Yet if, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There is properly no history, only biography,” Ong is certainly doing history a service by telling Madame Mao’s tale. And that’s particularly true since the playwright won’t bend the facts to accommodate the drama.
Instead, Ong seeks to strike a delicate balance.
“The play is lending a voice, whether or not it’s a complete picture of Madame Mao,” Ong says. “If someone can say it’s all wrong, that would be helpful to me. I’m very concerned.”*
* “Madame Mao’s Memories,” Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturday through June 26. $22-$34. (619) 239-2255.
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