Charles Pang and Michael Benzinger star in Tiananmen Requiem. This controversial gay-themed play might be welcomed here in New York but in China … that’s another story. Fearing retailation to him and his family, the author if the play wished to remain anonymous, hoping that his risk can help change the course of history.
Not everyone is as brave.
The play’s original director, production company, and several actors have left the production – many simply quit without offering a reason. Even a university professor, a mentor to the playwright, refused to be involved – even as dramaturg.
Taking the reigns of producer comes Toney A. Brown & Marc Levine with sponsors Wang Dan (Dialog China) and Rod Lathim joining the team. Dialog China is an organization founded by famed Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan, who was China’s “Most Wanted Man,” was imprisoned twice, and is spending his exile in America as an indefatigable human rights activist. In his endorsement of the play, he wrote on Twitter in Chinese “Seeing those who were not born during the Tiananmen Massacre dedicating themselves to preserving history, makes me incredibly thrilled. Looking at the younger generation, I no longer feel lonely.”
“[This play] is my only way of dealing with the trauma,” says the playwright.
We spoke with Pang and Benzinger about untaking a play of such maghnitude.
CHARLES PANG: I was born and raised in Hong Kong, but have been in New York for a decade by now. At first, I came here to study musical theatre at AMDA. During the pandemic, after two very satisfying experiences with a short film and a Shakespear play, I decided to study acting at Maggie Flanigan Studio, which is by far the hardest but also most rewarding thing I have done as an artist.
MICHAEL BENZINGER: I’m an actor. I started out as a commercial model in Asia and eventually found my way back to NYC, when I realized that acting is something I want to do for life.
What inspired you to be part of this play?
CHARLES PANG: Growing up in Hong Kong, I would read about the memorial for June 4th on Apple Daily every year and look at the pictures of thousands of people sitting in Victoria Park and holding candles. On RTHK, I would see political leaders leading the crowd to chant and sing in the memorial. In bookstores, I would see books with titles like “The Truth of June 4th Massacre”. However, I have never been to any one of them for various reasons, but mostly I guess it is because I did not know what the incident and the memorial meant to me, given that my family and I do not have any direct connections with June 4th. I also feared how participating in the memorial would change me and my world. Still, the fact that June 4th means so much to so many people who are not directly involved in the incident makes me question myself inside at times. So, when I decided to join the cast, I joined hoping to understand better what June 4th means to me, and who I am to those involved.
MICHAEL BENZINGER: As an Asian American actor, it’s rare to see roles that are specifically written for Asian actors. I felt like this would be a great opportunity to be part of an original play that talks about a significant moment in history that is not well known.
What obstacles do you foresee encountering?
CHARLES PANG: Finding Wang Yang’s motivation and point of view, relating to all his lived experience, and to find the difference between his 25-year-old self and his self in his 40s are all great challenges.
MICHAEL BENZINGER: Some people are still wary about being in close proximity to others because we are still in a pandemic. Some people with conservative political views expressed disdain for a story that takes place partially in China. That’s very unfortunate.
Do you feel a stronger responsibility when working on such historic and pivotal work?
CHARLES PANG: Definitely. While I was watching an interview in my research, a picture of corpses being left on the street from the massacre was shown, and it dawned on me that we were telling a story about those who died that night, whether they were trying to protect the students and keep the army from entering the square, or being chased after by the army after they had been told they could leave in safety… The responsibility cannot be bigger.
MICHAEL BENZINGER: No, I don’t. I think if I thought about it like that, I might put unnecessary pressure on myself which would take some of the fun away.
What’s your creative process like?
CHARLES PANG: Just reading the script and daydreaming and asking myself questions. Also working with Dennis. He completely changed how I see Wang Yang. I am also working with acting coach Erin Cherry to make sure that my crafting will support my performance.
MICHAEL BENZINGER: To be honest, it’s very difficult to put into words. The best way I could explain in a way that people could easily understand is that it is a mix of Method and Meisner.
What makes this different or special?
CHARLES PANG: I won’t be able to do a play like this in Hong Kong. Not anymore after the National Security law has been passed. I think this is what makes this opportunity so irreplaceable.
Do you think this should be a Broadway play or an off-Broadway play? Why?
CHARLES PANG: The play calls for emotional intimacy and in-your-face violence. I think it will work best with a small audience in an intimate setting.
MICHAEL BENZINGER: I would be happy if it was Broadway or off-Broadway. Broadway may have a bigger reach but there is something nice and intimate about a smaller audience as well.
What’s next for you and for the play?
CHARLES PANG: I am working on a reading for a musical, “The Dragon King’s Daughter”, by Marcus in April. Other than that, I am focusing on completing my 2nd year at Maggie Flanigan Studio.
MICHAEL BENZINGER: We are still currently rehearsing and believe it or not, still discovering new things!!! [But] I hope this production will reach as many people as possible, people of all races and backgrounds. I also hope we can show our potential and talent. Recently some producers and directors mentioned that they could not recommend any Asian actors because they did not know any. I was floored because these individuals have been in the industry for years, working here, in the most diverse city in the world. So I hope people will realize that Asian actors do exist!!! Not only do we exist, but we come in all shapes, sizes and shades. If any producers need some recommendations, I got plenty.