For years, Chinese officials have referred to the Tiananmen massacre as “political turmoil” and have attempted to make the violence of June 4, 1989, disappear.
Estimates of the death toll range from several hundred people to more than 10,000, though there has never been an official tally released. Thousands more were injured by troops who charged the student-led pro-democracy demonstration that began massing in Beijing’s vast open space in mid-April.
Against that backdrop, Tiananmen: A New Musical weaves a love story between two students in a production that opened Wednesday at the Phoenix Theatre Company in Arizona. Its world premiere will be Friday night.
Wu’er Kaixi, who was one of the protest leaders and who now lives in Taiwan where he is a pro-democracy activist, served as a creative consultant.
It is the latest in a subset of musicals that tackle serious issues. Cabaret addresses homophobia, antisemitism and the rise of Nazi Germany. Dear Evan Hansen grapples with suicide and bullying.
It took three years to produce Tiananmen. Beijing’s growing willingness to track down its critics and exert pressure on them left many who auditioned wary of accepting roles that jeopardize family or business interests in China.
The show’s musical director, theater veteran Darren Lee, told VOA Mandarin that before accepting the job, he had a career first: calling his parents to see if there were relatives still in China who would be endangered.
His family’s “most studious aunt” with the best “memory and connection to where we’ve all come from” greenlit Lee’s participation. The show’s original Chinese American director left the show because of “potential for retribution against his family in China if he were involved in telling this story,” Lee told Phoenix magazine.
Lee said one of the core messages of the Tiananmen play is to explore the impact of this “long arm of fear” on people.
“I’m an American-born Chinese person. I may share DNA with people in China, but I don’t have direct relatives that would be pressured in any way. So, I don’t have that same sense of — I guess it’s fear,” he said.
Producer Jason Rose said others involved in the show opted out due to concerns about family or business interests in China. Others used stage names or were credited as “Anonymous.”
Rose told VOA Mandarin he respected those decisions, but the show kept moving ahead despite possible pressure from Beijing.
“That’s what drew me to this show,” he said. “It is provocative. It is important. It is a celebration of bravery by these artists. … That is American art at its best, and to allow another country to dictate what’s going to be on the American stage — I’m sorry, that’s where I’ll hold up my hand and say, ‘Let’s go try and do this.’”
And while Kaixi hopes audiences will feel the students’ courage and the atmosphere of hope that permeated Tiananmen Square, he wants people to realize that the rulers of today’s China are no different from those who “decided to shoot and kill people” in 1989.
That view is reflected in a scene described by Rose in an opinion piece Sept. 15 in the Arizona Capitol Times. China’s leader in 1989, Deng Xiaoping, walking through the carnage left by the government’s attack, delivers a monologue: “People will forget what happened here. People will forget what we did here. Westerners will. China will. Because you will want smartphones. Because Beijing will want skyscrapers. Twenty-thousand dying will bring 20 years of stability. Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. And at the edge of memory, who defines the truth? Me.”
VOA Mandarin sought comment from the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco but did not receive a response.
Ellie Wang, who stars opposite Kennedy Kanagawa in Tiananmen, told Playbill, “This production is not just a celebration of art and storytelling but a powerful reminder of the importance of courage, resilience, and the universal desire for freedom.”
Wen Baoling, a Hong Konger who lives in San Francisco, traveled to Phoenix to attend a preview of the show, which has a book by Scott Elmegreen, with music and lyrics by Drew Fornarola.
“I really wanted to support this team of very brave people who made this show about the Tiananmen massacre,” she said. “The Chinese regime tries to put a lot of pressure on people, even outside of China. So, we can’t really let the censorship — this complete erasure of history — we can’t let the Chinese regime extend that censorship outside of China and into the U.S.”
Audience member Jerry Vineyard told VOA Mandarin he had followed the Tiananmen protests when they began. He said the musical “brought up a lot of memories for me … because I remember I was in high school, I was 17, when all this happened. And I felt a lot of hope when I saw that started to happen. And then it just seemed like it was all dashed and crushed. And then … they mentioned in the play, the [Berlin] Wall came down shortly after. So, [Tiananmen] kind of got brushed away in history.”
Kaixi said the students’ pro-democracy movement of 1989 remains “unfinished business.”
“I hope everyone will remember this history, respect this history, and eulogize this history. This generation of young people, with their dedication and their bravery, can achieve the results we wanted,” he said.