REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- A play about the struggle between a free press and government is one thing. A discussion about that play is yet another order of magnitude, as the producers of L.A. Theatre Works' "Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers" discovered this weekend in Beijing.
Midway through a performance Friday night at the prestigious Peking University, producer Alison Friedman received a text message informing her that a talk after the performance would be canceled for fear of "unforeseen consequences."
Friedman had little choice but to oblige. "I suppose we could have tried to push and play dumb and have them running onstage, grabbing our mikes," she said. "But I just announced it was canceled and we went on our merry way."
Actually, the biggest surprise was that the Chinese government, not what you would call a notable supporter of free speech, had actually agreed to stage a play about the U.S. government's deception concerning the Vietnam War and the U.S. media's courtroom battles in 1971 to publish a top-secret Pentagon study of the war.
"It speaks very well of China that they have embraced this tour. That is the real story," said "Top Secret" playwright Geoffrey Cowan, former dean of USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism and president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.
L.A. Theatre Works first produced “Top Secret” as a radio play in 1991 and brought it to the stage in 2008, when, in the midst of the Iraq war, the debate about national security and the public's right to know was as relevant as ever.
Susan Loewenberg, L.A. Theatre Works' artistic director, said she'd wanted to stage a play in China and wanted one that would be relevant to the Chinese.
"I knew it would be precarious to bring a story about freedom of the press to China, but I knew the Chinese would get it immediately and I didn't want to bring over something that would be meaningless," she said.
In 2009, Loewenberg was introduced to Friedman, whose Ping Pong Productions brings cultural attractions to China. They had coffee at, of all places, the Watergate in Washington and planned what has materialized as a 10-day run for "Top Secret" in China.
"Actually, there was nobody on my board, nobody in the foundation world, no one thought that this would ever happen," Loewenberg said, adding that an exception was a U.S. diplomat who thought it might be "just anti-American enough" to fly in China.
Although another post-theater discussion at Guangzhou’s Sun Yatsen University was canceled, it was permitted in at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center and Saturday night at Beijing’s Tianqiao Acrobatics Theater.
"Universities are more sensitive places than commercial theaters," Friedman said. Caixin Media, China's maverick news organization, co-sponsored the performance in Guangzhou and is also running an essay contest on its website about the play.
Peking University proved the most difficult venue—in part because of fighting between two government agencies that each claimed responsibility for the permits and limited ticket sales.
The question for Chinese censors, of course, is whether the play is advocating a U.S.-style free media in a country where independent reporting is not easily tolerated by the government. Friedman denied it, saying the play is a cultural exchange designed to show "a side of American culture that is not well-known here in all its nuanced, messy complexity."
"We had no idea just how relevant it would be," she said.
After the performance Friday night at Peking University, some in the audience appeared to be confused. Was a discussion really canceled, one attendee wrote on Weibo, the Twitter-like microblog, or is it "just their artistic satire about the lack of freedom of speech in China?"
A government official who attended the play said he was impressed by the “toughness of Americans.”
"It shows the difference between a developed and a still-developing country. It is not just a matter of superhighways," said the man, who gave his surname as Liu. "This play gives us food for thought."
-- Barbara Demick
Photo: Henry Clarke as the Washington Post's lawyer, Josh Stamberg as Ben Bradlee and Amy Pietz as Katherine Graham in a performance of "Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers" touring China. Credit: Courtesy of Alison Friedman