The story of an American woman held mysteriously in a Chinese jail cell starts promisingly but ends much too abruptly to make its point about human rights in China as well as America in "The Welcoming Committee."
By JOSHUA TANZER
"The Welcoming Committee" sets out to make a strong statement about human rights in China and an even stronger one about human rights in America, but ultimately unravels as a drama and ends too hurriedly to come to any really challenging conclusions.
In the first of two alternating stories, we see Jess (playwright Melissa Rayworth) pacing a Beijing prison cell where she's being held on a pretense involving her passport. As it turns out, she's been in the vicinity of too many members of the banned Falun Gong fitness and spiritual movement for the government's comfort, and her interrogator (Tony Cheng) wants her to sign an official apology to the Chinese people before she's released.|
In the second story, a Chinese Muslim exchange student named Guan (Michael Carroll) starts to behave strangely, making secret phone calls that arouse suspicions in his American host family, college professors Peter (Tony Finn) and Maggie (Heather Grayson). They argue over whether they should turn the kid in to authorities or whether they're just suffering a little post-9/11 paranoia.
So that's the setup, which seems promising if the play can follow through on its political ambitions. But things go wrong in the pivotal scenes on both sides of the Pacific.
In America, we find out what Guan has been up to all along because he just blurts it out for no reason. Meanwhile, in China, Jess is finally allowed to meet with a U.S. Embassy representative, who assures her that she'll be released but it will take time and she'll have to sign the apology. Furthermore, he tells her in a conversation that would simply never happen, the U.S. government now has a detention policy resembling China's so it's in no position to complain. The play quite consciously sets up this overbroad parallel between the two countries' policies, and it's a comparison that doesn't stand up to the facts.
At this point, the play needs to go further and show what real injustices these two expatriates face. But both segments end abruptly without any sense of conclusion and with little reason to share the Jess character's sense of outrage. In Guan's case, we're simply left to speculate about what happens to him after his big revelation. As for Jess, she concludes her story with a little-informed diatribe about how "both countries are equally ridiculous," and it's not a convincing end to the drama. Rather than follow the stories to their logical outcomes (which probably amount to nothing more than the characters being sent home a few months before they had planned), we get an empty, untheatrical polemic.
There is much to be said against the United States' post-9/11 policies, but writing a play about it is going to require actually confronting our deepest prejudices, showing what's actually being done to innocent people in this country, and at the same time accounting for the nation's need to protect itself. "The Welcoming Committee" doesn't pursue that story very far, and it does a lot of telling rather than showing. Despite strong acting all around particularly from the principals, Rayworth, Cheng, Finn and Grayson the play loses steam at the end and is surprisingly timid about taking on the really tough issues.
|AUGUST 23, 2002|
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