The story could have been taken straight from the U.S. 2016 presidential election headlines. A powerful former first lady seeks to follow in her husband’s political footsteps, but instead of assuming the nation’s highest office, she is destroyed by chants of “Lock her up!”
While Hillary Clinton’s lofty political aspirations merely ended in retirement after a stunning Electoral College defeat, Jiang Qing faced an actual life behind bars after the death of her husband, Chairman Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader who devastated his country during the historical period known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
On September 20, 2018, the story of Mao Zedong’s powerful wife will come to life in the American premiere of Madam Mao on the Boise Contemporary Theater stage. The play explores the final weeks of Jiang Qing’s life in a Beijing prison, 15 years after Mao Zedong’s death, using dance, live music, and improvisation as Janet Lo (“Jiang Qing”) interacts with Samantha Wan (“Sergeant/Trickster”) and Amanda Zhou (“Red Guard”), moving from present to past in a stream of stories about this powerful woman’s rise and fall.
When I spoke with Lo, the play’s lead actor and co-creator, by telephone in July 2018, it was sometimes hard to tell whether she was speaking as herself or as her character. Her role in creating Jiang Qing has immersed her in the story to such a degree that she sometimes speaks as Madam Mao, switching from third to first person without a thought.
I asked Lo what drew her to this infamous woman. Noting that such complex characters are still a rarity for Asian actors, Lo replied, “When I started reading about Jiang Qing, I was immediately intrigued that she led such a complicated life. She was, at one time, the most powerful and feared woman in the world. The question was how did she become so hated?
No one is born evil, but towards the end, she was accused of monstrous things. Was she evil or has she been vilified by historical perspective? And if it’s the latter, why?”
Jiang Qing’s transformation from young actress to cultural force is a fascinating tale. More popularly known as “Madam Mao,” she used the state-run theater and her control over the artistic community to prepare China to accept a woman leader. “There is no such thing as art for art’s sake,” Mao famously said, and Jiang Qing, who met fellow Communist Party member Mao Zedong when she was a drama instructor nearly half his age, used the spectacle of theater to create programming that glorified the Cultural Revolution. Her eight “Model Plays” deified Mao and the People’s Liberation Army, incorporating Western theatrical elements such as ballet, orchestral compositions, and opera. The plays relied on simple binary narratives that may also seem relevant to viewers today, with workers portrayed as the “good guys,” pitted in a heroic struggle against evil capitalists.
|Jiang Qing, aka Madam Mao, in 1976.
By Unknown - Dutch National Archives,
When Lo approached renowned Canadian actor and director Paul Thompson about creating a live stage play depicting Jiang Qing’s final days in her prison cell before her 1991 death by suicide, Thompson was already familiar with the story. Someone had pitched it to him in the late 1970s, and though it had all the elements of a gripping drama, Thompson felt that the subject matter would be too unfamiliar to theater goers because despite President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit, China at the time was still viewed in the West as an insignificant, backwater country.
Forty years later, the geopolitical realities are very different. With China emerging as a world power, Thompson decided that Lo was right: Jiang Qing’s story needed to be told. Madam Mao premiered in Toronto at the 2014 SummerWorks festival to rave reviews. The production won NOW Magazine’s “Best in Fest” award, citing its outstanding ensemble cast, director (Severn Thompson), and production design. After seeing a 2016 reprisal of the production, author Margaret Atwood of Handmaid’s Tale fame summed up her experience:
“Excellent performance, three versatile and expressive actors, fascinating story.”
I asked Lo why this story matters to audiences now, more than 40 years after Mao Zedong’s death. She gave me two reasons: first, the theme of idealism in politics. “I think that Jiang Qing was very idealistic when this all started,” she said. “She was living for the glory of the dream—the dream of a happier life for Chinese workers. The play explores how this idealism gets corroded in politics, and I think that’s a very relevant message.”
The second reason Lo gave me was that Madam Mao explores the role art plays in shaping society’s views. And in fact, this play was created in a way that may seem unusual to some American audiences. Lo’s mentor Paul Thompson was one of the pioneering forces behind a theatrical form known as collective creation, a collaboration among actors, playwrights, and directors using historical documents and facts with improvisation techniques to produce a play. The economic advantages of such collaboration are clear: A high quality production can be staged with just a few actors and minimal sets, and the production can easily travel from one community to another.
This creation method also has advantages for artists. I asked Lo what she enjoyed most about the collective creation process. “There is an energy and immediacy when a play is created this way,” she said. “And we as actors can take ownership of the work. Also, similar to how musicians jam, we as actors jam to create dialogue and story.”
According to Lo, one of the most important messages of the play is that the best ideological intentions can sometimes end in horrific abuses of power.
But there’s also a cautionary message about women and politics. “In the whole history of China, there has ever only been one female ruler,” Lo observed. “Even though in this country, we have yet to have had a female President, the United States is merely 242 years old, whereas China, in 5000 years, had only one empress from 624-705 C.E.”
In the play, Lo’s character Jiang Qing is asked, “Did you think you would be the next ruler of China?” Madam Mao’s reply, sadly, rang as true for women in the United States in 2016 as it did in China in the 1970s: "Do you think they would have let me?"
Let’s hope that with a record number of women running in the 2018 midterm elections, a few things change for the better, without the pain, corruption, and destruction of our own Cultural Revolution.
Madam Mao will play for six performances at the Boise Contemporary Theater from Thursday, September 20-Saturday, September 22. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit http://azureriver.wixsite.com/madam-mao