A Tiananmen Square Musical Worries About China’s Glare

When it was announced that Zachary Noah Piser would be playing the lead role in “Tiananmen: A New Musical,” he happened to be on a concert tour of five Chinese cities with a group of Broadway actors.

One day later, Piser, who played the title role in “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway last year, posted a short statement on Instagram, where most of his posts are bright and colorful.

This one featured just seven words set against a blank white backdrop: “I have withdrawn from the musical Tiananmen.”

“It was very odd to me because it was one statement, and it’s not usually how things like this happen in our business,” said Marc Oka, a cast member who found out about Piser’s departure through the Aug. 25 post, which had comments disabled.

Those involved with the “Tiananmen” musical, which premieres at the Phoenix Theater Company next month, are well aware that China aggressively censors discussions of the Tiananmen protests, in which Chinese troops killed hundreds if not thousands of pro-democracy student activists.

Jason Rose, the musical’s lead producer, said Piser’s manager told him — without providing details — that the actor felt pressure to leave the show and to post on Instagram. The manager, Dave Brenner, denied saying that.

“It was a decision he had to make and it was not an easy one,” Brenner said of Piser, declining to comment on why the actor quit a day after the public casting announcement. Piser also declined to comment.

Since the show, which follows the account of two Chinese students during the 50 days of protests at Tiananmen Square, was optioned by Rose’s Quixote Productions two years ago, some members of its cast have been worried about how the Chinese authorities might respond.

It is unclear exactly why Piser, who is Chinese American, decided to leave the show he was set to star in. But the show’s original director and at least one other cast member dropped out, Rose said, because of fears about the safety of family members in China. The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Darren Lee became the musical’s director after the first one dropped out because of concerns about his family’s safety.Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

The departures illustrate how frightening it can be for people with connections to China to bring attention to the 1989 protests in Beijing. The Chinese government continues to evade responsibility for the massacre and tries to eradicate any remembrance of the event — the brutal conclusion to weeks of demonstrations that had pierced the Communist Party’s facade of invincibility.

“Even doing a regional production in Phoenix, Ariz., there is so much concern over the control and reach of the Chinese government that American actors are afraid to be involved in the show,” said Kennedy Kanagawa, who replaced Piser in “Tiananmen.”

The show’s new director and choreographer, Darren Lee, who is Chinese American, said he accepted the job only after determining that he did not have direct relatives who might face retaliation from the Chinese government.

“It was the first time where I’ve ever been in the position where I asked my parents whether or not they thought it was OK to take the show,” he said.

“Tiananmen: A New Musical,” with a book by Scott Elmegreen and music and lyrics by Drew Fornarola, follows two fictional students at Beijing Normal University who are named after real students killed by the military. Initially, the students, Peiwen and XiaoLi, have contrasting perspectives on the protests, but they fall in love and witness history as tanks roll into the square and soldiers draw their guns.

Chinese troops killed hundreds if not thousands of pro-democracy student activists during protests in 1989.Credit…Jeff Widener/Associated Press

The musical wrestles with the tension between the revolutionary act of remembering and the authoritarian attempts to erase history. In one of the closing scenes, set in the present day, XiaoXia, the sister of XiaoLi, lights a candle as part of a vigil remembering the protests. A soldier arrests her and snuffs out the flame.

Earlier in the show, in a fictional monologue as his soldiers gun down protesters, Deng Xiaoping, China’s top leader at the time, says, “People will forget what we did here.”

He adds: “At the edge of memory, who defines the truth? Me.”

To this day, the Chinese government is vigilant about eliminating discussion of Tiananmen. The word remains one of the most censored topics in the country, second only to President Xi Jinping, said Xiao Qiang, an expert on censorship and China at the University of California, Berkeley.

It does not matter, Xiao said, that this show is being staged at a regional theater.

“Even the word ‘Tiananmen’ would generate fear in the Chinese government and that fear would generate a very repressive action,” he said.

Within China, people who publicly discuss what happened at Tiananmen can face jail time or see their children prohibited from attending universities. In May, the activist Chen Siming was arrested by the Chinese authorities over a social media post paying tribute to Tiananmen, according to Human Rights Watch.

Often the mere specter of danger is enough to muzzle any dissent, Xiao said.

The cast of “Tiananmen” is entirely Asian American and Pacific Islander, but those who are not ethnically Chinese have less concern about their involvement. Kanagawa and Oka, who are both Japanese American, said they felt comfortable speaking about the show because neither has family ties to China.

Potential consequences have been front of mind for other contributors. After Piser dropped out of the show, Rose said, some cast members grew more fearful and asked not to be featured in news releases or photographed.

The cast has had daily conversations, Kanagawa said, about repercussions for participating in the show. Some fret about being banned from visiting China or having business contracts canceled. Others fear for the safety of their relatives.

“People in China disappear still, and the idea of that being a family member is legitimately terrifying,” Kanagawa said.

“Every person in the room has decided, for whatever reason — could be artistic, could be political, could be whatever — to be there,” Lee said.Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

The Phoenix Theater Company and Quixote Productions have a history of staging politically relevant productions, presenting a musical in 2020 called “¡Americano!,” about a young man who discovers he is an undocumented immigrant. But “Tiananmen,” which was shaped by Wu’er Kaixi, one of the real student protesters in Beijing, has produced a special set of challenges.

“Every person in the room has decided, for whatever reason — could be artistic, could be political, could be whatever — to be there,” said Lee, the musical’s new director. “Everyone also understands that their comfort and their safety is paramount.”

Rose said Piser and the theater company had worked cooperatively until the actor arrived in China on his concert tour. At that point, “everything changed,” Rose said.

“I was always aware of the sensitivities, but frankly that’s what drew me to the show,” Rose said. “If this were 1954 or 1951, would Russia be dictating our arts scene?”

“This is a show that needs to be told,” he added, “particularly because of the efforts to erase the bravery and courage from history.”

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