Why you should care
Because a look into a closed regime, at a suppressed history, can enlighten us all.
There’s a Chinese fable about a praying mantis who stands in front of a chariot many times bigger than it is and stops the chariot in its tracks. The chariot’s driver is so impressed by the audacity of the tiny insect that he turns tail and heads in the other direction. Centuries after this fable was first told, a lone Chinese man stood in front of a column of tanks just outside Tiananmen Square and brought them to a momentary stop. It was Beijing, 1989, and it’s the opening scene in Ann Starbuck’s one-woman show, Tiananmen Annie.
It’s been a quarter of a century since what the Chinese authorities call the “June Fourth Incident,” when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, killed an unknown number of students, academics and workers, and snuffed out weeks of pro-democracy protests. The Tiananmen massacre still colors China’s relations with the rest of the world. Even Taylor Swift had to rename her tour this year from “T.S. 1989” (her initials and year of birth) to just “1989” to avoid falling foul of the Chinese. Starbuck tells the story of Tiananmen sparsely, with a set of just a few wooden boxes and a low budget. The minimalist production won Best Solo Show at the New York Fringe Festival, and took the Best Director and Best Production titles at the Hollywood Fringe this year.
Bruce Chadwick, the entertainment critic for the History News Network and a lecturer in history and film at Rutgers University, calls Tiananmen Annie “an extraordinarily good show” and Starbuck “a surprisingly good actress.” The story is told through Starbuck’s eyes: In the spring of 1989, she was studying in Beijing when thousands of Chinese began protesting in Tiananmen Square. Weeks later, on June 4, she watched the massacre unfold on television. Starbuck was in Hong Kong; she had left China the day before at the pleading of her father, a retired Air Force major who still had friends in the Pentagon and may have had wind of something.
All this occurred just a few weeks into Starbuck’s new, $10-an-hour job at CNN, which she took to make money for traveling. The job involved the usual navigating of bureaucracy that was part of life in China to cover a summit meeting and then the protests in the square. Starbuck recalls having to convince a Beijing cabbie to drive her to Tiananmen and back with a student hunger striker — something that could have earned her and the cabbie an up-close-and-personal visit to a labor camp or prison cell.
It was good raw material. But it took the former theater major two decades and seas of crumpled pages and discarded maudlin manuscripts to make something of it. Then, just before the 25th anniversary of the massacre, Starbuck found herself dreaming about her days in Beijing. She emailed director Richard Embardo, who had worked with American Horror Story’s Naomi Grossman on one-woman projects. “I have to do this play,” she told him. She remembers Embardo replying, “What took you so long?”
Starbuck will tell you she always wanted to tread the boards: A free spirit raised around Europe (military brat), she worked as an actress for a dozen years postcollege — Shakespeare, children’s shows, fringe — until, in 2006, she “got tired of being poor” and took a job at HBO. It paid the bills, but for the six years that she stuck with it, her soul wasn’t fed. Finally, in 2012, she left. You can see the joy of finally doing the job she wants in her onstage presence and omnipresence: She plays the man in front of the tanks, a tobacco-chewing woman with bound feet who sells silk pajamas and changes money on the black market, and even her own mother, who, with a Midwestern twang, complains when Dallas gets interrupted by news coverage of the protests. “Honey!” the mother cries to an offstage husband. “That’s where Annie is!”
It’s Starbuck’s old press credentials that made the show possible, says Chadwick. Her CNN ID allowed her to see things the Chinese government likely preferred she hadn’t. That doesn’t mean she has the full perspective, though. She is, after all, a Westerner who spent relatively little time in China. And though the show may reach Chinese-Americans living here, it will never reach the country of its setting — China still vigorously censors any mention of the June Fourth Incident, Chadwick notes. Despite that, almost half the audience on the afternoon this reporter checked out the show was Chinese. The play struck a chord with them, just as it did with Wang Chaohua, a student activist from Tiananmen who escaped to the West. She says Tiananmen Annie lays bare an important part of China’s recent history that the government is trying to erase.
Starbuck knows there’s a gulf separating her and China, but she doesn’t know how to bridge it. You can see this in one of the most human moments in the play, when she hugs her friend Mei-Mei (whom the audience imagines onstage) goodbye at the height of the protests. Starbuck’s eyes well up as she tries to press money into Mei-Mei’s hands, urging her to use it to find somewhere to go to ground.
When Starbuck returned to America, she wrote to Mei-Mei. The reply came quickly: Please, don’t write again. It’s too dangerous.
She never heard from Mei-Mei again.