“The people and the people alone,” said Mao Tse-tung, “are the motive force in the making of world history.” The leader of the Chinese revolution wasn’t talking about dramaturgy, but the slogan could be Lesson One in a playwriting manual for those working in traditional forms on grand historical themes.
Warren Leight not only heeds this principle in his new, autobiographical play No Foreigners Beyond This Point; the production’s didactic program notes quote it prominently. Based on Leight’s own experience as an English teacher in southern China’s Guangdong in 1980, the play reveals the disastrous impact of the Cultural Revolution on particular individuals—the teachers, administrators, and students at the Da Lang Institute of Foreign Trade.
Two young, white Americans—Andrew (Ean Sheehy) and Paula (Abby Royle)—stand at the center of the familiar plot, providing the naive eyes through which we encounter foreign territory. Raised by lefty WASPs, Paula has come to China with both the idealistic aim to contribute to a society based on equality (“There’s no rat race. . . . They don’t have car loans or house loans”) and with the mundane desire to forge an independent identity. Andrew, an aspiring writer, has followed Paula, inflamed by her red hair and fiery spirit. His greater skepticism—no rat race? “They ate the rats.” No credit cards? “No things to buy”—presages the disintegration of their romance. As his frustrations boil over in the face of commie bureaucracy, the culture of spying, and the failure of the administrators to provide a promised bicycle, Paula stays focused on trying to lower the barriers separating them as Western “barbarians” from their local hosts.
Trouble is, the Chinese characters are potentially more interesting than the immature lovers, yet Leight gives the Americans’ personal turmoil—a letter telling Paula her parents are divorcing, news that John Lennon has been shot—as much emotional weight as the gradual disclosures by Da Lang’s personnel of the ravages of the revolution: a violinist’s instrument destroyed and her wrists broken; a husband banished to a distant province; a father sent away, leaving his traumatized children deeply damaged. Despite some deft and moving moments, such as a party at which the school officials abandon themselves to a waltz for the first time in decades, No Foreigners seems like the work of a writer far younger and less experienced than Leight, whose previous memory play Side Man won a Tony Award in 1999. Here, Leight seems simply to have pulled episodes from his 25-year-old diary, and built a dramatic action on the heroes’ dawning realization that the Cultural Revolution had a few drawbacks.
Like Side Man, No Foreigners conveys real affection for its characters as it explores the emotional fallout of detachment and of what’s long left unsaid. Ma-Yi Theater Company’s top-notch ensemble, under Loy Arcenas’s skillful direction, gives full emotion and texture to each person caught in the closed world of Guangdong. But in less capable hands, the Chinese characters could come off as mere background scenery in a romantic soap opera about American kids searching for self in an exotic setting.
Eduardo Machado’s Kissing Fidel zeroes in more directly on the people swept into the motive forces of world history—in this case, anti-Castro Cubans who fled their nation’s revolution for the United States. Such families have provided Machado rich material for two decades’ worth of engaging work. If he has had more success with earlier explorations of exiles’ bitter legacy, the conflict between Catholic repression and American openness, and the messy entanglements of kinship and politics, Kissing Fidel signals a new stylistic investigation that is as potentially exciting as it is unrealized in this effort.
Neoclassically set in a single locale—a Miami funeral parlor whose striking upstage wall is composed of blood-red roses—the play sees various relatives come and go, taking turns at voicing solo laments, exchanging rapid-fire recriminations, and throwing themselves into each other’s lascivious arms. Formally, Kissing Fidel marries Racine to telenovela, unleashing issues of duty and restraint into a genre where people are oversexed, overwrought, and over-the-top.
It’s not easy to strike a tone that is at once arch and sentimental, extreme and everyday, and the company at INTAR (where Machado is artistic director) achieves mixed results under the halting hand of director Michael John Garcés. But for a play that might also have been titled Blaming Fidel—all the relatives seem to think the old dictator lies at the root of the betrayal, incest, and suicide that have plagued the family for 30 years—Machado’s aggressive assault on the realistic frame of the dysfunctional family drama holds great promise.