By: Jon Kaplan
Janet Lo understands that a lot of people have a visceral reaction to the name Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao. The head of the Gang of Four, she was a hated figure whose promotion of China's Cultural Revolution led to the persecution and deaths of thousands.
But Lo is fascinated with the woman, and the result is Madam Mao, a play she's collaborating on with Paul Thompson, Samantha Wan and director Severn Thompson.
A controversial figure who died in 1991 after years of imprisonment, Madam Mao, says Lo, was a proto-feminist, born into poverty, who rose to become the most powerful and possibly the most feared woman in the world.
"I want to explore how that arc happened, what shaped her life," says Lo. "We focus on the cultural aspect, including the eight model plays she created during the Cultural Revolution to emphasize Communist ideas and victories."
Once a person gains power, as Madam Mao did, she'll do anything she can to keep it.
Lo has been using improv and tales from Chinese legend to develop the script, which was initially a solo show featuring Lo as Jiang Qing. In the process, she and Paul Thompson added a second figure, played by Wan, a Communist sergeant who questions the defiant former leader in prison. Wan's background means that martial arts and dance are now part of the production.
"In her youth Madam Mao was an idealistic actor - she played Nora in A Doll's House - who found camaraderie in Communism, a group in which she could belong and find hope. When she met Mao, the party didn't approve of the relationship and in fact insisted that he not acknowledge his marriage to her for 20 years. When he stood in Tiananmen Square in 1949 to proclaim the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Jiang Qing was in Moscow.
"But once a person gains power, as she did, she'll do anything she can to keep it."
Wan's young soldier functions as a counterpart to the always bold, unrepentant Madam Mao, a young woman who might follow the same path as the older character.
"In fact, you could argue that the sergeant wouldn't be there if Madam Mao hadn't followed her own path. The imprisoned character even asks her captor, 'What would you do if you were in my position?'"