In China, an Odd Theater Revival ; Producers of U.S. Play about Freedom of Press Discuss Its Popular Return

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"Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers," a U.S. play about freedom of the press, had difficulties during its first tour of China in 2011. Surprisingly, it has returned to popular demand.

One night in December 2011, I found myself sitting in a freezing theater south of Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital watching an American play about press freedoms and government control. The play, "Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers," portrayed in fictional terms the legal fight by The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers over the vigorous objections of the Nixon administration. It was written by Geoffrey Cowan, a former dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California and former director of Voice of America.

The publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 by The New York Times and The Post, which revealed official misjudgments and cover- ups in the U.S. government's war effort in Vietnam, is a touchstone in modern American journalism, alongside Watergate and battlefield coverage of the Vietnam War. All those events put a spotlight on what many see as the most important mission of the news media in American society -- challenging authority at the highest levels and pushing back against government censorship.

So of course it was a bit of a surprise to see the play performed in China, where the Communist Party goes to great lengths to try to corral domestic and foreign journalists and disseminate propaganda. The tour had had its difficulties -- objections had been raised in some official quarters in China. Nevertheless, the night I saw the play, reaction from the audience, mostly young Chinese with some foreigners, was enthusiastic. Several Chinese undergraduate journalism students said afterward that they had thoroughly enjoyed it.

Even more surprising is the fact that the play is back again in China, and this time it is being performed in Beijing at the National Center for the Performing Arts, which, just west of Tiananmen Square, is the most prestigious venue of its kind in China.

The current China tour began May 23 in Hangzhou. It arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for a three-day run. Those familiar with recent Chinese history will notice the interesting coincidence in the timing -- Tuesday was June 4, the 24th anniversary of the massacre around Tiananmen Square, in which hundreds or thousands of people were killed after party leaders decided to forcefully end pro- democracy protests by students and other ordinary Chinese. The party and the state have banned any mention of the event and suppressed the nation's collective trauma.

"Top Secret" will be staged next in Chongqing on Saturday and then Fuling on Monday. As it wrapped up its earlier performances in Hangzhou, Suzhou and Tianjin and prepared to come to the capital, I had an exchange with its two producers, Susan Albert Loewenberg, the producing director of L.A. Theatre Works, and Alison M. Friedman, the founder of Ping Pong Productions and a longtime Beijing resident.

Q. The world of media and politics is very different now than when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers. What makes this subject relevant today?

Susan Albert Loewenberg Funny you should ask. It seems to me it's deja vu all over again. If I were an A.P. reporter right now, I would be most interested in exactly what transpired back in 1971. Good journalists still believe -- as Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham did -- in the sanctity of responsible truth-telling. What the play compellingly portrays is critical and courageous decision- making, and the importance of judgment.

Alison M. Friedman I actually don't think the world is that different. There are still the same tensions between the government and the media. The play is just as relevant now because we're still dealing with the same issues, only with even more media and information outlets.

Q. You've had several performances now in China on this tour. …

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