Supporting creative work by women
Zhu Yi‘s daring, lyrical play I Am a Moon, which has wowed audiences across the world, will be part of this year’s New York International Fringe Festival. The play follows people facing their fears about their bodies; one of the characters was inspired by Ai Iijima, one of the first major Asian porn stars. Last year, I Am a Moon was banned last minute for scheduled performances in China.
Zhu spoke with Works by Women about the censorship of her play, working with director Marios Theocharous, and her next play, inspired by the horror genre.
WORKS BY WOMEN: Body shaming is an interesting topic to explore in a play. What first inspired you?
ZHU YI: I was inspired by my own fear.
Since I was very young, I’d been obsessed with “youth”. And I always proudly presented myself as this talented young girl to the world. It meant opportunity, beauty, future, energy, freedom…until one day, when I was 26, my mom told me: “You should find a husband asap, because your value as a woman drops every year after reaching 25-years-old.” Some people disagree, “Nah, you are still young. I wouldn’t worry until 30 or 40. ”
Realizing I have a long life to live (longer than 40 years hopefully) and a lot of shit to deal with, I started to re-exam my pride. Why do we value each other with such a cruelty while none of us stays perfect anyway? Everyone is born as a soft warm little thing, and life puts marks and scars on us along the way. No one can escape it. So why do we make each other feel worse while we share the same fear?
Every ordinary person has a magnificent journey. We would be amazed by the beauty and courage around us, if only we have more patience and mercy on people. Most of the stories in the play really happened. I wrote them down as a tribute to those peoples’ journeys. And also as a response to all the insults that will (sooner or later) fall on my post-25-year-old depreciating body.
WBW: What excites you about I Am a Moon being in FringeNYC?
ZY: “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.” Though I Am a Moon has been performed in five cities in China, the UK and the US, New York City has always been my dream stage. Especially FringeNYC is so much fun. It’s not only about selling tickets or getting reviews, but about the whole experience. The town meeting, the deadlines, the Indiegogo/Kickstarter fundraising, the actor/stage manager/designers seeking, the rehearsal, the postcards mailing… So crazy and so much fun. FringeNYC is for people who start from nothing and believe they can achieve anything.
WBW: Last year, your play was censored and not allowed to play in China. What was that experience like for you?
ZY: Those were painful experience, because four different productions of I Am a Moon were all censored at the last minute, about one week before the shows opened. The theater companies had already put everything into the production and the audience had bought the tickets. And then without public announcement, the government shut down the performances.
In March 2012, when I Am a Moon was censored in China for the first time, the Culture Committee of Beijing issued an official document to the local Culture Committee of Chaoyang District, which declared the inappropriate contents needed to be removed from the play or it would be banned and a fine would be levied. The document criticized the play as “talking too much about teenagers’ sexual impulses, sexual fetishes, and sexual violence,” “lack of theatrical impact,” “too tiring for the actors to play and too tiring for the audience to watch,” etc. Therefore, the local Culture Committee of Chaoyang District called Ms. Gu, the producer of The Door Theatre Company, to the office, showed her the document and then took it back. They told her, for the next three performances, the Culture Committee would randomly send two anonymous officers to spot check if the show obeyed the order.
Out of respect to the audience and the creative team, the producer refused to make the changes, but she didn’t dare upset the Culture Committee either. After discussing it with the creative team, she chose to close the show immediately to avoid trouble. “We will re-open the show in the future when the Culture Committee becomes not so strict. They change often actually. Sometimes they are strict because of certain incidents, and a few months later they suddenly make it easier for everyone,” she said optimistically. In that same month, there were two other shows also shut down in Beijing by censorship, one called Beijing, I Love You, the other called Ants Have No Problems, because the first talked about sex and the latter criticized the unfair distribution of social wealth.
I’ve now lived in New York for five years. I now realize that even if all of my plays get censored in China, I still have outlets in other parts of the world. This still makes me sad. It would mean so much to me to see my plays being performed in my motherland because as an artist, speaking out loud only inside the free zone is as pathetic as singing only praise inside China. I shall continue seeking opportunities to produce my and others’ “inappropriate” plays in China and try the best to keep the integrity of them. We should never stop pushing the line, even if only a tiny bit further each time. One day, there will be a change, and I hope I’m around to see it.
WBW: You are working with a Cyprus-born director. How have you benefited from this collaboration?
ZY: My collaboration history with Marios Theocharous date back to 2008, when we were both MFA candidates at Columbia. He directed my short play Wedding, and we knew we artistically clicked with each other. In 2009 he asked me to write a play for his thesis production. “Give me a lake, a moon and a beautiful woman,” he said. So I wrote Lifetime Fairytale, a boy’s journey of becoming a man, inspired by an old Chinese myth. We never stop working together even after he moved back to Cyprus.
It’s magic how similar our cultures actually are. Even the Greek music sounds Chinese to me. And because our cultures are both ooooold and family-oriented, we share the similar value and understand each other’s social conventions. But no matter what shows we do together, the teams are always super international. In I Am a Moon, we have artists from six countries.
Besides that, we are just both crazy and happy spirits.
WBW: What’s next for you?
ZY: My next project is called The Slut Play.
I am a huge fan of horror movies. However, the more I watch, the more predictable I find the genre has become. And among all the horror conventions, one has been bothering me the most: sexually active women die first. Therefore, I decide to file these two complaints together and fix them with one new play – The Slut/Horror Play.
In this play, I will experiment horrors by all possible means, but without any old tricks like splashing blood, sudden screams, disgusting monsters, etc. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I’m going to exam the pure power of fear itself by going deep into our dark side. But that’s not enough. The more important mission of this play is to save those doomed women’s lives. I’d like to take the example of those female victims in horror movies as the jumping-off point to ask more questions about the word “slut”. And I will go through the famous sexual-morality-related cases one by one: Fuck Me Shoes, Purity Ball, Silver Ring Thing, Slut Walk, Hijab, Jilbab, one-night-stand, rape jokes, circumcision, the ban of Barbie dolls in Iran … Not by analyzing them in theory, but by re-telling those stories in the style of horror movie, because I believe what’s behind the word “slut” is deep fear. And that fear is more horrifying than any horror movie we have seen in cinema.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in theater?
ZY: I haven’t encountered any challenges as a woman in theater, just like I haven’t encountered any challenges as a Chinese in theater. I consider myself as a playwright instead of a female/Chinese playwright. Whoever sees me differently, I ignore them.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in theater?
ZY: Whenever I see a really amazing play written by a woman that got produced, I see hope; whenever I see a really bad play written by a woman that got produced, I see hope.
I Am a Moon plays FringeNYC August 9th – 25th. For tickets, visit www.FringeNYC.org.
Photographers: Afra Lu, Xiimeng Bal