"If we're doing a play about Mao, to a 21st-century American audience," says Mike, a character in Christopher Chen's The Hundred Flowers Project, "then we should assume they don't know any Chinese history." OK, let's assume that. Here are three events you'll need to know about if you're going to keep up with Chen's frantic, flawed, wildly ambitious piece of work, running now at Silk Road Rising in a version directed by Joanie Schultz:
The Hundred Flowers campaign
In 1956 Mao Zedong decided to play a little game with the masses. The chairman of the Chinese Communist Party instituted a cultural program that encouraged folks—particularly the intelligentsia—to offer "constructive criticism" toward a better China. There was tremendous reluctance at first. But with some coaxing, the ideas came in a rush. Then a torrent. Then a tsunami. And they weren't confined to mild adjustments, either; some called for fundamental change, including an end to communist rule. Depending on whom you believe, this was either a major shock to Mao or part of his clever plan. He called a halt to the Hundred Flowers campaign and reeducated, imprisoned, or killed dissidents who'd been lured out into the open by it.
The Great Leap Forward
Next Mao launched an industrialization effort that was supposed to bring exponential advances in the production of steel and food. Unfortunately, he was an appalling ignoramus when it came to steel, and the people who might've enlightened him had been silenced during the Hundred Flowers campaign. Believing that usable metal could be smelted by amateurs working with scavenged scrap, he ordered the rural masses to build forges in their backyards. Then he set ridiculously high quotas for them, forcing them not only to melt down their own housewares but also to ignore their crops (which were being eaten by a wave of locusts, as it happened). Millions starved.
The Cultural Revolution
By 1966 the Communist Party was in disarray, along with the nation. Mao reasserted his authority by inciting a sort of children's crusade in which young zealots/thugs were formed into units of the Red Guard, a paramilitary organization charged with ferreting out bourgeois elements and restoring pure Maoist ideology as defined by Mao's "Little Red Book." Purges, torture, forced labor, public humiliations, and executions followed.
None of this horror is directly portrayed in The Hundred Flowers Project, but it hovers over everything and ultimately seeps into the production's pores.
What we see instead is an ensemble of five serious-minded, mostly Asian-American theater artists, preparing a devised show about Mao's rule—devised meaning that the process is designed to be collaborative, with the director acting less like a leader than a therapist at a group session ("Say more about that," she urges) and the script "congealing" out of the creative interactions of the participants, sans playwright. There's a distinct hierarchy here nonetheless, company member Sam drawing the lion's share of favorable attention from director Mel while their fellow deviser Lily complains about the "weird voodoo in the air." And there's romantic weirdness as well. Mike, who's playing Mao, nearly wrecked his marriage to nonactor Julie a while back by getting smoochy with Lily. Now he's on a short leash, Julie having decided to keep an eye on him by sitting in on the workshop we're watching.
It looks at first like Chen is out to satirize the false egalitarianism and faddishness of devised theater. And to some extent he is. The ensemble clearly regard it as revisionist backsliding, for instance, when Julie naively asks why they can't add a character—a journalist, say—for the audience to identify with.
Chen isn't satisfied to leave it at that, though. The Hundred Flowers Project opens out tremendously in its second act, to equate the cruel lies, constantly shifting allegiances, and twisted collectivism (dictatorship of the proletarian, indeed!) with the new tyrannies of social media. The ensemble's little theatrical experiment has somehow gone viral to the extent that it's outgrown auditoriums and even stadiums and become a kind of all-pervasive, never-ending, constantly evolving performative organism that defines (and then redefines) both its creators and its audience according to inscrutable algorithms. The Cultural Revolution didn't stop even when Mao declared it over; the ensemble's play won't stop for them, either.
It's a brilliant conceit. But, ironically enough, both Chen and Schultz lose control of it. Chen's script fails to justify the great conceptual leap from an essentially naturalistic first act to the dystopian second. The new circumstances are described yet never explained at the bone-deep level such contrivances demand. They therefore come across as nothing more than the next phase of Chen's thesis, rather than the lived reality of the world onstage. Schultz might've eased us through the situation by acknowledging its absurdity; her The Hundred Flowers Project might've let a hundred dark jokes bloom. She approaches it in the spirit of earnest sci-fi, however, and the thing wilts.