Cultures clash in Warren Leights new play, No Foreigners Beyond This Point, featuring Karen Tsen Lee (left) and Abby Royle (right).
Familiar terrain: unwelcome Americans in a strange land
By Scott Harrah
At a time when America is being harshly criticized by some for its cultural imperialism in places like Iraq, Warren Leights brilliant Off-Broadway play No Foreigners Beyond This Point, set in a village outside of Guangdong (Canton), China circa 1980, offers a disturbing, topical look at what happens when Americans try to make a difference abroad.
The tale unfolds at an isolated Chinese trade school immediately following the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. As the country tries to recover from a decade of oppressive leadership by Mao Zedong, a dictator who oversaw a movement that killed 400,000 people through violence and starvation, two young, idealistic Americans, Paula Wheaton (Abby Royle) and Andrew Baker (Ean Sheehy), arrive in Guangdong to work as English teachers at the school. Paula has come to China to learn about socialism, while her boyfriend Andrew mostly tags along because hes in love with her. But from the moment they enter the villageone where no foreigners have ever gonethings go horribly wrong. Many of their personal belongings and their U.S. passports are seized by Chinese customs, and they are forced to stay in a foreigners only hotel for several days while their living quarters are renovated and filled with household appliances and other Western amenities. After several days, the teachers arrive at the school and are shocked to learn that they will not have any autonomy, but instead will be treated as privileged guests. Paula and Andrew are even given their own household servant, Xiao Wan (Laura Kai Chen), an odd but sweet-natured teenager who carries a stuffed toy because it was given to her by her long-gone father (a victim of Mao Zedongs corrupt regime). We later discover, however, that Xiao Wan is not as innocent as she seems. Meanwhile, at school, students crave access to everything Western, but government bureaucrats have the upper hand and control everythingincluding Paula and Andrews privacy. Soon, they are living under virtual house arrest, and in no time realize that they have come to a totalitarian place where devious behavior, artifice and betrayal are necessary for survival. The liberal, upper-middle-class communities they grew up in have done little to prepare these two for life in a rugged, forlorn place where individuality is as elusive as food. The two come to understand that the promotion of American ideas and culture is not always welcome in non-Western countries, and as a result, must overcome many cultural, political and personal barriers.
Their story is loosely based on Warren Leights own experiences as an English teacher in China in the early 1980s. Fortunately, he does not use the plot or his characters to make political statements about China and its past or present government. Instead, Leight, who won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play for Side Man, writes about his characters and their troubled world with incisive empathy and dark humor. The claustrophobic 45 Below Theatre in the basement of The Culture Project, with its factory-style lights and dark, industrial atmosphere, is a perfect setting for the play because the gloomy surroundings help the audience get a sense of how isolated and alienated the characters feel in such a barren place. There are many scene changes (perhaps a bit too many), and several begin with flashing lights and eerie sound effects that add dramatic tension. Loy Arcenas brilliantly directs the first-rate supporting cast who portray numerous Chinese teachers, civil servants, and peasants. Laura Kai Chen is particularly noteworthy as the servant girl Xiao Wan, and she imbues the character with an emotional intensity that is heartbreaking and honest. Some of the scenes are spoken briefly in Chinese, making the play incredibly authentic, though it can also be confusing at times. Regardless, No Foreigners Beyond This Point is a complex and thought-provoking drama that rings with veracity.