These days, the word communist does not come easily or often to the lips of American college students. On the campus of UC Irvine especially, where many students have family roots in Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea and China, the term is rarely used except in a pejorative sense.
So it is jarring, even in a play, to hear a handsome young actor proudly proclaim, "I am a member of the Communist Party."
The play is "Fanshen," based on a history of the Chinese revolution in a single village, 400 miles southwest of Peking, in the chaotic days between the close of World War II and the triumph of the Communist Party in 1949. Directed by David McDonald, associate professor of drama, the student production is being staged at 8 p.m. today through Sunday in Room 260 in the Fine Arts Village. Admission is free with tickets.
"There is no political identity to the cast," McDonald said. "We assume the actors can play anything." He added, "Of course, their parents might be shocked."
In Chinese, the ideographs for "Fanshen" mean "to turn over" or "to upset." This critical moment in modern Chinese history, as the Japanese occupation army was withdrawing or surrendering and the civil war between the Communist and Nationalist forces was reignited--with the outcome still in doubt--was re-created by an American author, William Hinton, in his 1963 book of the same name. A dozen years later, the British playwright David Hare, author of "Plenty" and "Map of the World," adapted the work for the Joint Stock Theatre Group in London.
McDonald said he chose to do the play at UCI, in part, because the "existential disparity" between China of 1946 and Orange County of 1986 is "so incredibly dramatic."
What is upset in "Fanshen" is the Old Order, with the peasants first bringing to judgment the collaborators and landlords who made their lives so miserable for so long, and then dividing up the spoils of land and possessions.
Using a version of the Socratic method, a Communist cadre gets the former bandit Yu-lai, played by a bare-chested, swaggering Manami Mitani, in real life a Japanese-American, to proclaim: "Our labor transforms their land! We create their wealth!"
Although a work of propaganda influenced by enthusiasm for the Chinese Communists, "Fanshen" is not just a paean to vulgar Marxist-Leninist-Mao Tse-tung thought.
When the landlords are overthrown and their wealth redistributed, there is still not enough to significantly raise the standard of living for all the poor peasants. Men, even "revolutionary" men, still oppress women, and some of the new leaders are as prone to petty authoritarianism as their predecessors. Envy and jealousy survive, and there is resentment when Communist Party organizers insist that discipline and austerity are the only ways to move forward collectively.
Ironically, nine of the 10 cast members are Caucasian. Instead of period costumes of blue cotton tunics favored by Chinese peasants, the company decided to dress in denim, its American equivalent, sandals and cloth slippers. By agreement, no effort was made to use Chinese pronunciations. Thus the name of the Nationalist Chinese party, spelled Kuomintang, is pronounced as transliterated, rather than the more euphonic Gwo-min-dong.
The play, staged in a bare, cavernous painting studio, begins with what seems to be a parody of "A Chorus Line," with the 10 actors lounged in a row along a stark white wall introducing some of the 30 characters they portray. Seating, on backless wooden benches, is scattered around the periphery of the room, with the action occupying the center.
In rehearsal, at least, the words and lines reverberate against the walls of the two-story studio as the actors bounce and roll and tumble across the concrete floor.
McDonald, son of David J. McDonald, former president of the United Steel Workers of America, is no stranger to proletarian drama. While working on a fine arts degree at Yale, he wrote and produced a play based on the Russian revolution, and he has visited the Soviet Union.
"Fanshen," while dated, is within the agitational-propaganda tradition represented by the German dramatist Bertold Brecht, the director said. At first, McDonald suggested that the young actors try to evoke the ethos of Berkeley in the early 1960s, but eventually, he said, the cast found its own legs.
As a matter of fact, in keeping with the subject matter and his belief that drama should provoke critical action as well as critical thinking, the director said he let democracy, sometimes bordering on anarchy, reign in the early weeks of rehearsal. Ultimately, the dynamic of the production began to replicate that of the play, with a kind of structural equilibrium eventual reasserting itself, he said.
In part because of budget considerations, there are no sets and few props. "We tried to keep it as naked as possible," McDonald said.