REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- A theatrical play about the struggle between a free press and government is one thing. A discussion about that same play is yet another order of magnitude, as the producers of L.A. Theatre Works' "Top Secret: Battle for the Pentagon Papers" discovered Friday night in Beijing.
Midway through a performance at the prestigious Peking University, producer Alison Friedman received a text message on her cellphone 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 on stage, grabbing our mikes," said Friedman, who runs Ping Pong Productions. "But I just announced it was canceled and we went on our merry way."
Actually, the biggest surprise was that the Chinese government 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. L.A. Theatre Works first produced it 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 out 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.
The play ran as scheduled in Shanghai, from Nov. 22-27, but at Guangzhou's Sun Yatsen University, a discussion afterward with playwright and author Geoffrey Cowan was canceled. "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 of all -- 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 there really a discussion that was 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?"
-- Barbara Demick
Photo: Susan Loewenberg, L.A. Theatre Works’ artistic director. Credit: Clarence Williams / Los Angeles Times