Tiananmen Square’s “Tank Man” Sought in TimeLine’s Chimerica

ChimericaChris Rickett as Mel Stanwyck and Coburn Goss as Joe Schofield. Photo by Lara Goetsch

Lucy Kirkwood’s 2014 Best New Play Olivier Award winner Chimerica, running at the MacArthur-Award-winning TimeLine Theatre, invents photojournalist Joe Schofield (Coburn Goss) to find the current whereabouts of unknown hero “Tank Man.”

Set on basketball court staging (by John Culbert), the two locations and ideologies are encamped on opposing sides. One is Joe’s cramped New York apartment (with Catch 22 on the bookshelf), across from Joe’s China-based translator Zhang Lin (Norman Yap), who keeps memories and secrets in his equally tiny, but messier and probably bugged flat (supertitles are used when he and his compatriots speak and reminisce in Mandarin).

The empty middle ground houses flashbacks to Tiananmen Square and other Sino-American schisms (“Americans hold elections every four years; no wonder they can’t get anything done…and their teeth are too white,” and the oft-quoted “women hold up half the sky,” said by Mao Zedong), supported by photographic projections of historical events on back theater wall screens.

In 1989, on “May 35th” (so called as Chinese search engines block the real date of June 4), Chinese soldiers shot armor-piercing bullets into the backs of about a million peaceful senior and student protesters, who had assembled after the death of Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang, who was attempting to lead by “seeking truth from facts.”

Western media were already in Beijing to cover a visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, so they were able to film, photograph and document the massacre. Schofield was one of the journalists who snapped photos of “Tank Man,” a Chinese citizen in a white shirt carrying two shopping bags who stood up against the line of tanks, outmaneuvering them until he was finally whisked away, “a picture of heroism that changed things.”

Joe works with fellow journalist Mel Stanwyck (Chris Rickett) to convince his editor Frank Hadley (H.B. Ward) to track down the mystery man (even though “journalism is dying”), starting in modern China, “full of Starbucks and cockroaches,” where fancy business dinners are conducted at KFCs, in the country where “there is no such thing as an individual.” They continue to follow leads in New York’s Chinatown even after the story is spiked when the paper acquires Chinese investors.

The writing is clever – “you could teach a Sphinx how to Sphinx” and “God forbid your opinion should go unexpressed” – and modern Chinese economics are also explored (1.3 billion pragmatists who use credit, but only if they have the money before they spend it – and what was in Tank Man’s shopping bags anyway?), as well as environmental issues: Chinese police make sure smog is referred to as fog, even though their intense, unregulated air pollution causes a “third world death in a new world China.”

The text illuminates that “no one like to think that they’re unremarkable.” The energetic, provocative production also serves to show how China went “from famine to Slim Fast in one generation” as well as the power of a “fuck weasel photographer” to shorthand a revolution in a frame, along with the ongoing collateral damage of both actions.

Chimerica runs through July 31 at TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.. with performances Wednesday-Sunday. Run time is 3 hours with one intermission. Tickets are $38-51. Buy them online or by calling 773-281-8463, x6.

Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.