Interview With Playwright of ‘Beyond the Gate’

April 7, 2011 Updated: April 7, 2011

LETHAL FORCE: People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers leap over a barrier on Tiananmen Square in Central Beijing June 4, 1989, during heavy clashes with people and dissident students. Chinese troops forcibly marched on the square to end a weeks-long occupation by student protesters, using lethal force to remove opposition encountered along the way. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed in the crackdown as tanks rolled into the environs of the square. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)
LETHAL FORCE: People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers leap over a barrier on Tiananmen Square in Central Beijing June 4, 1989, during heavy clashes with people and dissident students. Chinese troops forcibly marched on the square to end a weeks-long occupation by student protesters, using lethal force to remove opposition encountered along the way. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed in the crackdown as tanks rolled into the environs of the square. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)
The New York-based La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club will host a compelling play-reading that explores the Tiananmen Square Massacre. With similar events continually unfolding in the Middle-East and North Africa, looking back to this Chinese uprising against totalitarianism is all the more timely.

I interviewed Jianguo Wu, one of the play’s two authors, on the collaboration and inspiration for Beyond the Gate of Heavenly Peace (the English translation for Tiananmen.)

“As a participant in the democratic uprisings which culminated in the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, it had a big impact on me,” explains Jianguo on his interest in the play’s subject matter. The other impetus for writing the play was that despite the scale and significance of the event, “there are not many literature works about Tiananmen.”

Beyond the Gate of Heavenly Peace reveals the often censored details of the event through the experience of four young Chinese characters who leave Beijing in search of a better life in Australia.

While Jianguo himself was not in Beijing on the infamous day, he had a similar experience in his hometown of Chengdu, where there were also students petitioning in the city’s central square. On June 4, 1989, armed police were sent in to drive the students in the central square away, which resulted in stone-throwing between both sides.

“I joined the citizen group and tried to stop the fighting. We told the armed police officers it was wrong to employ violence against the students,” he said.

SHOT AT: A Beijing resident on the west side of Tiananmen Square shows a slug from the automatic rifle fired by the army July 4, 1989, that went through his apartment's window in Central Beijing.  (Manuel Ceneta/AFP/Getty Images)
SHOT AT: A Beijing resident on the west side of Tiananmen Square shows a slug from the automatic rifle fired by the army July 4, 1989, that went through his apartment's window in Central Beijing. (Manuel Ceneta/AFP/Getty Images)
When it seemed like there would be a peaceful resolution, people in front of the police sat down on the ground.

“We trusted them and then we gathered between the students and the police,” Jianguo recounts. “But suddenly they shot gas bombs at us, and one of the bombs exploded on my left arm injuring me.”

The greatest impact of this ordeal on Jianguo, however, was the confirmation that “the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) was so, so evil.” He saw the similarities between his experience and the gory scene in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on the same day.

“The students had done their best to avoid any possible violence. They held their hands at Tiananmen and stopped anybody from damaging the public property, but the CCP deliberately wanted to create violence.”

“Eventually the CCP lost patience,” assessed Jianguo of the Tiananmen tragedy. “They did not want excuses any more but just ordered their army to move forward. Even so, many soldiers still did not want to open fire on the crowds.”

“That’s why I have created a soldier character in the play and used his experience to tell the truth, because people in the world do not know these details.”

It would be a few years still before these experiences would be shared and written for audiences.

Jianguo left China in 1991, as a student, for Australia at age 27. There he met his writing partner, John Ashton.

“I met John at RMIT University in Melbourne when both of us studied professional writing and editing there.”

“My English was not good enough to do literature works in English,” admits Jianguo, who was born and raised in Sichuan Province. “So John became my partner, and we did the writing together.”

The play Beyond the Gate of Heavenly Peace was produced in Melbourne. In 2005, their second play, Kites of Broken Strings, won The R.E. Ross Trust Playwrights’ Script Development Award in Melbourne.

In 2008, their third play, “Snow in Summer,” was completed.

After many short stories and three plays, Jianguo came to the United States in 2008. He now works in San Francisco.

The writing team will reunite in New York and be available for a Q & A with the public following the reading of Beyond the Gate of Heavenly Peace, on Monday, April 11, at 7:30 p.m. The play reading is free and open to the public as part of the Experiments Play Reading Series at the La MaMa E.T.C. at 74A East 4th Street.

For more information, please call 212-475-7710 or visit website.