One disadvantage of video replacing photography as the public’s primary means for interpreting the world is video provides a false sense of context. Viewers watching a 30-second video too often choose a side in a conflict without considering what occurred in the hours, days, weeks, and years preceding the video.
Lucy Kirkwood’s play Chimerica (playing at the Timeline Theater) is anchored on June 6, 1989, the day that photojournalist Jeff Widener immortalized the Tank Man photo as a symbol of the Tiananmen Square protests. In this three-hour exploration into the contrasts between modern China and modern America, most of Kirkwood’s ideas find their target despite Kirkwood not quite recognizing the most powerful moment in her script.
The most intriguing idea in Chimerica is that the Tank Man photo symbolizes a pivotal moment in modern history. One man holding two grocery bags stands in front of a line of tanks—temporarily stalling the tanks’ progress toward the protesters at Tiananmen Square. This is the moment, Chimerica articulately argues, when China solidified its foundation as a take-no-prisoners economic machine. America, in contrast, has emphasized a more democratic voice, which contributes in part to America’s current staggering debt.
The play jumps into high gear immediately as fictional photojournalist Joe Schofield (Coburn Goss) watches these events unfold from the balcony of his hotel room in China. He snaps his soon-to-be-famous Tank Man photo and manages to hide the film in the toilet tank as Chinese authorities pound on the door. Flash forward 23 years and Schofield is back in Beijing visiting his friend and contact Zhang Lin (Norman Yap), who would like for the world to be aware that the government is falsifying information about air pollution.
I never grasped how Joe and Zhang Lin met and became friends and colleagues—this becomes a bit of a problem later on—but Zhang Lin drives the main plot line in an early scene by giving Joe a contact that could lead to the identification of Tank Man, who might not be dead as Joe had assumed.
The play follows a structure reminiscent of a TV police procedural as Joe’s search for Tank Man takes him from seedy strip clubs to fund raisers for the rich and powerful—each stop providing a clue that gets Joe one step closer to his goal. Joe’s obsession is partly motivated by the possibility of a follow-up photo, but on a more psychological scale Joe wishes to meet a man whose act of heroism elevates beyond any of Joe’s adventures into war-torn nations. Meanwhile, Joe faces pushback from the two most powerful governments in the world and inadvertently brings harm upon Zhang Lin and a series of minor characters.
Without giving too much away, I’ll note that the play ends with a level of unlikely coincidence that is magnified because 20 minutes earlier, Kirkwood created a brilliant plot twist that would have left the audience at a much higher level of provoking thought. Is it possible that the real hero of the Tank Man photo was there all along but hidden to all—including the photographer?
Photos propel history, and Timline’s accompanying lobby display showcases a number of action photos—from Vietnam to Argentina to Sudan—all of which would be well worth a play of their own. Chimerica proves that the the nameless faces in these photographs are the most intriguing stories.