The world premiere of a new play by an award-winning playwright opened November 26 in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1999, Warren Leight's Broadway play, Side Man, won the Tony Award for Best Play. Today, his most recent work, No Foreigners Beyond This Point, is being performed at a regional theater featuring a large Asian-American cast.
No Foreigners Beyond this Point is an autobiographical account of playwright Warren Leight's experience as an English teacher in rural China in 1980. It was a time when few westerners were allowed into the communist country. "And we went to a school that had not had any foreigners before. In fact there was a sign on the road that said, No Foreigners Beyond This Point. And they moved it back about three miles in honor of our arrival," he says.
Warren Leight was 22 years old in 1980 when he traveled with his girlfriend and fellow teacher to Guangdong province in China, a rural village where few Chinese had ever seen a foreign face. Mr. Leight says he, too, had little understanding of Chinese people or of the recent demise of the Chinese Cultural Revolution a violent 10-year political campaign aimed at purifying the Communist Party.
Before it ended in 1977, millions of so-called "intellectuals" were forced into manual labor to be ideologically cleansed. There was massive civil unrest and hundreds of thousands of people died through starvation or violence. "It's the same as if you arrived in Germany in 1947," says Mr. Leight. "Except that you had no idea that anything had gone on there until you arrived. It was that disorienting to Americans when they get there, because they don't know the back story of what's happened. Because Americans in 1980 were still told that the cultural revolution was a great social experiment. We hadn't found out the truth about the horrors of it."
During his eight months teaching in Guangdong province, Warren Leight wrote letters and took detailed notes of his experiences, which later sat in a box for 20 years. That was, until last year when Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis asked him if he had any ideas for a new play. "And he told me about two ideas," she says. "And I said I like the idea about China. And he said, 'You're the first person to like the idea about China!"
"Had she not been interested, the play would not have been written. And the moment she was interested, the play seemed to write itself," says Mr. Leight
In No Foreigners Beyond This Point, the playwright takes the audience on a journey of discovery - between two cultures, and the two teachers, whose personal relationship is tested under the strain of a strange and difficult working environment. At the premiere in Baltimore, a cast of six Asian-American actors play the Chinese students eager to learn about life outside their country; the two Americans who play their teachers are equally as ignorant of the history and ways of their new foreign land.
"What are cadres, exactly?"
"Surely you are pulling our leg!"
"Cadre means the party representation in your worker brigade or your school department or your housing commune. He decides if you can get a larger apartment or have a baby or get a travel permit to visit relatives if someone dies."
"That is why we say a 'penny in the hand of a cadre is like a dollar in the hand of a peasant!'"
The staging of No Foreigners Beyond This Point, has been a collaborative effort among the author, the director, and the actors. Some of the Asian-American cast, such as Nancy Wu, bring special insights to the story. "The time that he went is really quite a rare thing for a westerner to be in China at all in the '80s," she says. "And for him to be so observant and take notes and record his entire experiences, it's such a gem!"
Nancy Wu was born in the United States but lived in China for several years. She plays dual roles in Warren Leight's new play and describes working on the production as "the most incredible, creative experiences that she has ever had." She considers No Foreigners Beyond this Point a legitimate portrayal of China. "People ask me, 'Do you think it's strange that this white American guy is writing about China or your experience or Chinese people and I say, 'No, not at all. Because he is not pretending to be more than he is," she says. "He's giving a very specific slice of life, of time in history where he was there and observed and he was able to be privy to stories that people felt safe to tell him."
One of the things playwright Warren Leight says he is most happy about is that the production gives new opportunities for Asian-American actors to be cast in roles that defy stereotypes. "We had our first run-through and around the table I saw six Asian actors and two Caucasian actors and I thought 'I've never seen this in rehearsal.' American plays tend to be all white or all African-American or all Asian or sometimes there is one 'cute' African-American or one 'cute' Asian," he says. "But to have a play actually set in China with Chinese-American actors was thrilling to me. There is a kid in this play who's a beautiful actor he says in his last two years in New York he's only auditioned to play delivery boys and gang members. And that's who Hollywood writes for Asian Americans at the moment. So I haven't seen this world done on stage, I haven't seen this time period done. And it means, it's always harder to get a play like that produced."
Well, that may or may not be true. Warren Leight's Side Man, about the world of jazz, started out in a small theater and was considered by many to be too obscure a subject to be popular with mainstream audiences. Good reviews and word-of-mouth publicity sent Side Man to Broadway where it received the prestigious Tony award for Best Play of 1999. For the playwright, directors and actors of No Foreigners Beyond This Point, the project has truly been a labor of love. It may not be so surprising if this 'little play' turns out to be the next big hit.