This article discusses the 2010 Picun performance of Crow2Topia, the first play by the Beijing division of Daizō Sakurai's tent theater. Sakurai had previously participated in grassroots theater activities in Japan and Asia: in 2007 members of the mainland independent theater scene introduced him to the labor NGO and community cultural center Migrant Workers Home in the urban village Picun in Beijing. Sakurai's collaborators suggested that the suburban village-in-the-city, populated by rural migrant workers, would be a performance venue that fit the Japanese director's vision of theater as being located on the margins of society. The article delineates the trajectory of Sakurai's tent theater, analyzing the play Crow2Topia and pointing to intertextual references to premodern theater traditions and modern texts. Drawing on similarities between the play, which portrays a contemporary Chinese city from the perspective of the inhabitants of a garbage dump, and the precarious position of the actual tenants of Picun, it argues that the tent theater and the Migrant Workers Home can both be described as unstable “shared spaces” with permeable borders. In these spaces, social roles and personal identities are in constant flux. The closing part of the article expands the notion of “shared space,” first introduced by Dai Jinhua in her discussion of the emerging popular culture in mainland China in the 1990s, beyond the borders of the local cultural scene and embeds it into transregional networks of grassroots cultural activism.
In 1973 the Japanese tent theater facilitator Daizō Sakurai 桜井大造 set off on a journey in search of new forms of collectivity (Sun 2015: 183). He had participated in a variety of grassroots theater activities around Japan and Southeast Asia, but in 1999 he finally settled in Taiwan. In 2007 Sakurai brought his Taipei- and Tokyo-based theater troupes to mainland China for the first time and, soon after, established a new division of his theater in Beijing. In 2010 the Beijing-based tent collective performed their inaugural play, Wuyabang2 乌鸦邦2 (Crow2Topia), in two locations in the capital's Chaoyang district: the Ninth Theater and the Migrant Workers Home in Picun, a “village-in-the-city” on the outskirts of Beijing (see this issue's introduction).
This article explores the 2010 performance of Crow2Topia in the Migrant Workers Home. It argues that the space created by the Picun tent is a polyphonic, multilingual laboratory of imagination that is powered by memories of the past and by criticism of inequality in the era of globalization. This laboratory is theoretically open to people from all walks of life. However, as my discussion of the Beijing-based tent troupe demonstrates, the complex undertaking of practicing cross-class dialogue in the elusive language of nonmimetic drama poses a challenge for audiences used to the more clear-cut messages of socially engaged art practiced in the Migrant Workers Home. At the same time, the elusiveness and fragmentariness of Crow2Topia mirrors the instability experienced by many, regardless of their social background, in a society that remains in a constant flux.
To grasp this precariousness, this article takes Dai Jinhua's 戴锦华 concept of shared space (gongyong kongjian) to inquire into the tensions and interactions created by the actors involved in writing and staging the play (Dai, Su, and Wei 2018). Dai (1999) originally proposed her concept in response to the reshuffling of the cultural field in the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the 1990s. In her view, shared cultural spaces are characterized by a distinct dynamic of perpetual exchange between, and mutual displacement of, the different stakeholders (e. g., the state, the party, industry, local authorities, and individuals) (see Dai 1999; see also the introduction to this issue).
Performances by Sakurai's tent collectives in mainland China constitute just such a shared space, created through the efforts of individuals and organizations representing not only the unofficial cultural scene but also institutions supported by local authorities (Zhao C. 2009; Sun 2015: 223–30).1 In 2007, when Sakurai's troupes erected their first tent in the PRC in front of the Chaoyang Cultural Center (the Ninth Theater), the situation was far from comfortable. Despite the efforts of his Chinese supporters, Sakurai had failed to obtain all the necessary permissions. His troupes staged the play anyway and left the venue immediately after its conclusion. This instable setting matches Dai's definition of cultural shared spaces as an ever-shifting interplay of relations and interests, often jeopardized by the state or entertainment industry. In this discussion of Sakurai's tent collectives, I add a new dimension to Dai's original definition—transregional cooperation at the grassroots level that is the topic of the closing section of this article. I argue that to be able to develop a better understanding of the Migrant Workers Home in Picun, we must investigate its entanglements with cultural activism within and outside the PRC.
Enacting Resistance across Asia: Daizō Sakurai's Tent Theater
Daizō Sakurai is a successor of the Japanese angura (underground) theater movement that was politically rooted in the 1960s leftist protests against the renewal of the United States–Japan Mutual Security Treaty. Aesthetically, the facilitators of the Japanese underground theater positioned themselves in opposition to westernized modern and shingeki (realist) drama (Ortolani 1990: 244–49). Sakurai belongs to the tent theater tradition that began in 1967 with the first performance by Jūrō Kara's Red Tent Theater in Tokyo (Hsu 2013: 66–68). While Kara's Red Tent troupe did not perceive theater as a site for social change, their contemporary, the Black Tent troupe, saw theater as a means of empowering the people (Goodman  2003: 355–56).2 Both troupes traveled extensively across Japan and Asia, and their mobile establishments became a symbol of independence from the cultural mainstream. However, by the end of the 1980s, most underground theater collectives had embraced popular, commercial theater (Bergmann 1989: 85).
Sakurai was a latecomer to the tent theater movement, and he did not follow the trend of commoditization of the once avant-garde. In 1973, the university dropout, together with some former members of the Black Tent, established Kumaakan (Acrobatic House), a circus theater collective (Hsu 2013: 72). Later Sakurai adopted the Acrobatic House's vision of an uncompromising critical theater that performs for marginalized minorities and urban underclasses as the foundation of his own dramatic practice. The troupe spent most of its time touring remote villages in northern Japan. The candor of their plays, which touched upon sensitive topics such as the marginalization of Japanese Koreans or the anti-emperor movement, in addition to the group's disregard for institutional authorities, occasionally led to clashes with the police (Nie 2014: 9; Hsieh 2019: 106). Acrobatic House is remembered for its radicalism and gradual acceptance of violence, although in self-defense only (Hsu 2013; Sakurai 2013).
After the dissolution of his first troupe, Sakurai left Japan to join the Korean Guangju Uprising (1980). Consequently, theater for him became inseparable from social movements and the working class. With the establishment of his second collective, Kaze no ryodan (the Traveling Wind Troupe), in 1982 the general framework of Sakurai's tent theater was set. Since then, all members of his troupes have contributed 10 percent of their income to the collective and dedicated their spare time to rehearsals and other activities, such as tent building and performing.
The early 1980s were also important for the development of Sakurai's rehearsal method, zizhu jigu 自主稽古 (self-archaeology, or self-exploration), which is still practiced by his tent troupes (Nie 2014: 13). According to Tao Qingmei, Sakurai first practiced self-exploration with random passersby he met on the streets of Guangju during the uprising (Taozi 2006b: 19). After returning to Japan, he continued his experiments with residents of a psychiatric ward. Thus, the introspective rehearsal process also became a healing practice developed in liminal spaces. Self-exploration as theater technique combines elements of individual and collective creative work. It originates in the embodied experience of individual performers whose personal history leads to the creation of new dramatic characters. In this early stage, actors are free to make decisions about the themes, words, and any other aspect related to their individual rehearsals. Next, every member of the troupe performs three scenes of his or her choice and discusses them with the other members of the troupe. The director, Sakurai, gives his feedback only after the completion of three rounds of self-exploration. Last, selected members of the collective are tasked with editing the final version of the drama (Nie 2014: 13–14).3 The three main pillars of Sakurai's theater philosophy have remained unchanged since the 1980s: resistance to mainstream cultural values, a closeness to social margins, and the practice of self-exploration.
In the 1980s, Sakurai was based in San'ya, a district in Tokyo home to a large community of precarious day laborers. He became witness to fierce fights between the workers’ organizations and yakuza that tried to take control of the casual job market.4 San'ya was also home to groups of undocumented laborers from all over Asia who had been lured to Japan by the country's booming economy. In the late 1980s, migrants from mainland China and Indonesia joined Sakurai's collective. The director realized that a proper critique of late capitalism could not be crafted in just one country (Taozi 2006b: 16). Coincidently, Sakurai's tent became a household name among Japanese intellectuals, who perceived it as the last bastion of leftist thought in the otherwise apolitical era of the bubble economy (Taozi 2006a: 80). Instead of following other tent troupes into mainstream theater, Sakurai turned to a new critical project that would address the shifting labor-capital relations under global capitalism. In 1999 he arrived in Taiwan, where he joined forces with the playwright and theater director Chung Chiao 钟乔.5 In 2005, they both took part in the Asian Madang Theater Festival in Guangju, where the tent erected by Sakurai's troupe for the first time hosted performances by minjian (grassroots) theater collectives from mainland China.6 In 2007, Sakurai's Bianhuan: Chuangjia zhi cheng 变幻:疮痂之城 (Metamorphoses: Scabbed City) was the first tent play to be performed in Tokyo and in Taipei and Beijing (in Chinese translation).7
In September 2007, the joint Japanese-Taiwanese tent troupe erected their tent in the courtyard of the Migrant Workers Home in Picun. After the play ended, the troupes left behind the wooden skeleton of the tent that was later incorporated into the construction of the New Workers Theater (Sun 2015: 217).8 In the same year, a Beijing-based working group of Sakurai's theater was established by local volunteers, mainly young academics affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), as well as media professionals and university students.
In 2009, Sakurai participated in the first round of self-exploration conducted by the new collective. Two academics, Zhou Zan 周瓒 and Sun Bai 孙柏,9 were entrusted with the task of writing the script that would become the Beijing division's first production. In 2010, the troupe decided to name itself “Lin Zhangpeng jushe” 临 帐篷剧社 (Limen Tent Theater Troupe).10 In July of the same year, the Limen troupe received substantial support from the Japanese and Taiwanese tent troupes when constructing their first venue in the courtyard of the Migrant Workers Museum in Picun.11
Zhou and Sun's Crow2Topia showcases an eclectic group of characters who inhabit a waste dump on the outskirts of an anonymous city in mainland China.12 The figures share the unsightly space, but their stories do not form a coherent plot. The drama resembles a patchwork of mythical motifs and folktales, such as Chang'e flying to the moon or the decapitation of Xingtian 刑天 (Opposing Heaven), combined with intertextual references to Lu Xun 鲁迅 and to the poets Haizi 海子 and Lin Zhao 林昭. The waste dump hosts mythological figures (Xingtian), literary characters (Kong Yiji 孔乙己), and representations of typical urban professionals. Among these urban professionals are the Taiwanese manager Kong, sex worker Duyao Mao 毒药猫 (Junkie Kitten), food stand worker Wonton (混沌), the retired delivery worker Zhai Ji Song 宅急送 (Emergency Home Delivery), a nameless doctor, and the university graduate, Shunjian 瞬间 (Instant). Furthermore, everyone on the dump lives under the constant surveillance of an anonymous multitude of black crows that is led by the power-hungry but powerless Wuya Wang 乌鸦王 (Crow King), assisted by the Shōwa emperor. The list of characters closes with Bai Ya 百鸦 (White Crow) and Yu Popo 雨婆婆 (Grandma Yu), who are both in search of their roots. White Crow feels trapped by her paradoxical identity, whereas Grandma Yu is a former war refugee who paid to be smuggled back to her homeland but was finally dumped like a piece of garbage in the basement of the waste processing plant.
This choice of characters, together with their symbolic or ironic names, hints at an entanglement of influences from the Japanese underground theater and local Chinese dramatic traditions. David G. Goodman ( 2003) describes the 1960s Japanese underground theater as facilitating the “return of the gods” to address questions of “personal salvation” and “social revolution.” Angura troupes often presented overlapping worlds of realities in order to raise possibilities for social change—a dramatic strategy that resonates well with the mythological and fantastic subjects of Chinese theater traditions.13 The play revisits the tradition of Mulian mystery plays, among others, which dramatize the story of a young man's legendary descent into hell to save his mother.14
Crow2Topia opens with two workers, Xingtian and Shuiguizhong 水鬼重 (Water Demon), entering the basement of a waste processing plant to repair a broken pipe. This task was assigned to them by the Taiwanese manager of the plant, Boss Kong. Soon after, some other characters onstage fight desperately to stop the waste gushing out of the broken machinery. Their conversation reveals more details about the depressing conditions of their urban existence: the drinking water has been poisoned with sulfates, the air is heavily polluted, almost everyone suffers from unusual health conditions, and a chemical stench permeates the place.
The stage is horizontally divided into three levels: the basement is described as the “eighteen levels of hell” by the Water Demon; the ground level is occupied by mythological and humanoid protagonists, but they share this space with a growing population of crows; and, finally, there is the sky, which is the target of Crow King's invasion. The play intertwines actual topics such as gentrification and social exclusion with mythological motifs of traveling through the underworld and of primordial chaos and power struggles that are actualized through the onstage presence of Wonton and Xingtian.
Even though the various characters originate from very different times and spaces, they have one feature in common—an unstable identity. Some of them have already begun to metamorphose into different beings, but not all are aware of their in-between condition. For example, Water Demon is growing a pair of small wings and compound eyes. Emergency Home Delivery suffers from constant itching, which the doctor fails to recognize as the first symptom of the ongoing metamorphosis. During the play, it becomes clear that these transformations were triggered by the accidental consumption of birds’ meat.15 Other transformations also occur. For example, in an uncanny rewriting of the Mulian legend, Xingtian returns from the basement repair mission with their neck covered in layers of Yu Grandma's clothes and the head of a worker killed in an accident.16 Before affixing the stranger's head to their neck, Xingtian suffers a mental breakdown that culminates in a hallucinatory monologue in which they speak about the itching and physical pain accompanying their transformation. The fragmented script does not explain how the transformed Xingtian finds their way back aboveground. In a later scene, Xingtian emerges from the refrigerator in a food stand where other protagonists are enjoying noodles with crow meat. When they ask Xingtian about their clothes and the luggage they carry, Xingtian refuses to answer. The play jumps to a conversation between Crow King and his assistant, Emperor Shōwa, who have discovered that the inhabitants of the dump are preparing a ceremony dedicated to a new protective deity who will guard them against the diseases that plague them.
The next act opens with a dialogue between White Crow and Junkie Kitten. The bird reveals that it is going to leave the dump to keep looking for its lost identity. At the same time, Boss Kong is meeting with the student, Instant, to discuss White Crow's whereabouts. This conversation revolves around global waste and carbon emission trading that led to the creation of the dump. Here, the script is most straightforward in criticizing the current market-based approaches to environmental problems as being unjust and based on the exploitation of underprivileged local communities. Boss Kong sees White Crow as endangering his business plans because its abnormal appearance is a visible sign of the hazardous levels of environmental pollution. He plots to trap the bird with the help of Instant, but the student instead helps White Crow to escape the dump. The play closes with a collective performance of the theme song.
The Challenge of Cross-Class Relationships
This short overview allows us to link Crow2Topia not only to older Asian theatrical traditions, but also to modern developments. The question of representation of the lower classes by the intellectuals was at the core of Maoist culture after Mao's talks at the Yan'an Conference on Literature and Art in 1942.17 Sun and Zhou's drama questions the socialist vision of theater in which intellectuals remold themselves in order to speak for and with the masses. Even though the educated inhabitants of the dump share the precarious living environment with the menial workers, they repeatedly fail to understand why the others are suffering. Representations of the better-educated protagonists in Crow2Topia emerged from collective rehearsals and self-exploration conducted by the members of the Limen troupe.
The play shows that intellectuals do not have any better grasp of the complexities of the modern world than others, and consequently they, too, lack the ability to formulate clear visions of the future. When Emergency Home Delivery sees the doctor about a cure for the itching that is plaguing her, the doctor mistakes the symptoms of her transformation for an occupational disease. The scholar, Kong Yiji, is portrayed ironically as well.18 He picks up scraps of old newspapers and books from the garbage and hopes to discover all the secrets of society in them. The other inhabitants of the site treat him with respect and occasionally seek his advice. However, when Instant, the student, asks him about the origin of White Crow, Kong Yiji is unable to solve the mystery of the strange bird's identity. In contrast to the scholar's wild ideas, Boss Kong is not only aware of globalization's impact on local communities, but also of the threat that White Crow poses to his future business plans.
Crow2Topia's criticism of formal education and intellectual privilege reflects Sakurai's concept of fei qimeng 非启蒙 (nonenlightenment)—according to the director, it is not his task to educate the masses (Taozi 2006a; Sakurai et al. 2016). When Sakurai brings his tent to a marginalized location, he establishes a temporal shared space but also provokes social tensions. The director speaks of cross-class relationships as zhengduo 争夺 (struggle); nevertheless, according to him, this constant clash of worldviews and social identities is the only possible way to establish a space based on duideng 对等 (reciprocal action and influence) (Taozi 2006b: 19–20).
The problematization of identity has been at the core of Sakurai's theater from the beginning. The director identifies with the early kabuki tradition in which actors were referred to as “riverbed beggars” (Brandon 1995: 561), and his troupes deliberately position themselves as social outcasts. Since the beginning of his career, Sakurai has attempted to get close to the ethnic, economic, and cultural margins of modern cities. Despite his efforts to shed his own identity as an intellectual, Sakurai remains a highly valued interlocutor for a number of Chinese scholars.19 For instance, in contrast to Sakurai's other troupes, the first Beijing-based tent division was established solely by intellectuals. Not surprisingly, even though their first performance rejected the idea of unproblematic representation and untroubled identity, they were soon drawn into discussions about class identity and the limits of their performance (Sun 2015: 219; Dai et al. 2015).
At the Beijing performance, all the onstage actors came from the professional urban middle class. As in the other tent shows, the performance was nonrealistic. Instead of playing workers onstage, the performers staged the impossibility of doing so. The well-educated middle-class actors were not impersonating lower classes laborers and instead kept a distance from the characters they played. The distance is conveyed in the script by the symptomatic “itching” that troubles the metamorphosing characters. For example, this itching bothers Xingtian when they attach a worker's head to their neck, and here again it becomes clear that the play does not pretend to suture class divisions. On the contrary, at this exact moment, wounds reopen and Xingtian is eyewitness to carnage:
Is this my skull, my eyes? Why do I see a such different scenery? Wasteland! Fresh blood! Limbs broken! Monument! Rubbish! Square! Fresh flowers! Detonation! Innocent children killed! Silent mouths wide open! Eyes of the dead full of pain but feeling relief! A tall forest of raised arms! Red slowly coloring the darkness! Are these the painful wounds of history buried in the depths? The itching of scars! The itching! (Sun and Zhou 2010)20
Sakurai Daizō (2016: 126) has repeatedly emphasized that the living characters share the space of the tent with ghosts. While plays by Japanese and Taiwanese tent directors often summon the ghosts of the imperial, colonial past that parallel the memories of protest movements of the 1960s (Sun 2015; Hsieh 2019), Sun Bai and Zhou Zhan's text is haunted by memories of war and revolutionary violence. Xingtian's vision recalls the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution and the brutal repression of the 1989 protest movement. The play leaves no doubts that revolution is a traumatic event and not a solution to social justice issues. Crow2Topia does not pretend to solve this problem, nor does it bridge class divisions. It does, however, hint at commonalities shared by all the tenants of the dump. It is to these commonalities that I now turn.
The Troubled Urban Space of Crow2Topia
The symptomatic, vexing itching bespeaks the pathological existential conditions in contemporary Chinese metropolises. Members of the lower and middle classes alike are troubled by environmental pollution and a sense of uprootedness. The same could be said about status anxiety, psychological pressure, overwork, and traumatic memories. The content of the trauma remains, however, class related. Crow2Topia does not prioritize victims of intellectual persecution over workers who died in workplace accidents or committed suicide out of exhaustion and despair. The victims appear side by side onstage.
Sun Bai and Zhou Zhan's text is sympathetic toward migrant workers. The play emphasizes the harsh working and living conditions in Chinese cities and the physical and psychological costs of labor. For example, the character ji 急 (urgent, fast) on the delivery worker's uniform not only characterizes her profession but also her anxiety and constant agitation. The workers are the species closest to birds. White Crow speaks with tenderness about workers who “nestle on the top of high buildings” and end their lives in unsuccessful attempts to become birds (Sun and Zhou 2010). Crow King also sees the workers as his own kind, particularly those forced to work night shifts or live in the waste dump. In Crow2Topia the only clear distinction among the muddled identities lies between the floating population of the dump and the shimin 市民 (urban residents) who can afford a good night's sleep. The play never shows the lucky downtown dwellers. The distant, normative urban subjects with residence permits, stable jobs, and saving accounts construct themselves through exclusion of the “abject outside” of the waste dump. For Judith Butler (1993: 3),
Abject designates here precisely those “unlivable” and “uninhabitable” zones of social life which are nevertheless densely populated by those who do not enjoy the status of the subject . . . this zone of uninhabitability will constitute the defining limit of the subject's domain; it will constitute that site of dreaded identification against which—and by virtue of which—the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to life.
This function of the waste dump as a “constitutive outside” to the urban subject is most clearly articulated by Kong Yiji: “Try to imagine an endless world where you can walk without ever reaching its limits. . . . The end of the world is exactly where we live, it's our waste dump. We, together with the crows, are its protectors. Only because we exist, does the world have a border and the shape that it has” (Sun and Zhou 2010).
In another scene, Junkie Kitten compares the waste dump to a beach and its inhabitants to collectors of seashells. Like Kong Yiji, she speaks of her conflicted feelings toward the dump but simultaneously expresses a sense of affection for the dark site. The text lacks even a single instance of horizontal mobility; no one ever leaves the dump. The direction of vertical mobility is mostly downward, exemplified by the descent into hell by Xingtian and Water Demon, and the migrant workers’ suicides. This downward mobility is also the main theme of the main song of the play, “Pinkun zhi ge” (“The Song of Poverty”). The lyrics were written by the poet Zhou Zan, and Sun Heng 孙恒 from the New Workers Band composed the music:
This song ends the performance and is a poetical rendering of the main themes of the play. When understood literally, the movement downward symbolizes the fear of loss of social status. From a broader perspective, it is also an introspective journey into the individual and collective unconscious to the underworld inhabited by suppressed memories erased from official historical narratives.
The Waste Dump, the Tent, and Picun
According to Sakurai, the tent is the space of individual as well as collective fanxing 反省 (soul-searching and introspection) that deals with a “past yet to come” (Sakurai 2016: 127). Cheng Kai (2016: 149), a member of the Beijing tent division, explains that Sakurai's concept of theater as fan-shijie 反世界 (counter-world) does not only stand for fandui 反对 (resistance) but aims to create a rupture within the existing world, a space within a space, and, finally, a critical space. This space is not a purely discursive one: it is sustained and performed by the materiality of the tent. The stage and the seats are separated from the outside only by a thin layer of canvas that is easily penetrated by noises from outside. The audience can move freely between the inside and outside of the tent in accordance with Sakurai's vision of theater that actualizes itself when fighting for the viewers’ attention (Sakurai et al. 2016: 137–38).
Thus, the tent simultaneously establishes and questions boundaries within the social space. It resembles the repressed, abject outside that is the dump, that simultaneously defines and undermines borders. Sakurai describes the tent as longcheng 笼城 (a place of confinement) for the weak, who, however, can potentially “turn the tent inside out and entrap the world in it” (Dai et al. 2015). This concept of space is doubled and best explained in the aforementioned scene from Crow2Topia, in which Kong Yiji describes the waste dump as a defining margin of the world. His interlocutor's lack of understanding forces Kong to search for another metaphor:
Look at this plastic bag. It is a bag full of waste, but at the same time it is waste itself too. When you put the world inside it, [the world] will think of itself as if it were everything and it won't know that it is inside a plastic bag. In fact, it will have no idea of the outside of the bag. . . . But, today is different. . . . Maybe the bag has already been turned inside out and the outside counter-world is now inside! (Sun and Zhou 2010)
Crow2Topia challenges utopian representations of a modern city as sites of social advancement by showing it from the perspective of inhabitants of a literally sub-urban neighborhood dominated by a waste processing plant. At the same time, it undermines an utterly dystopian representation of gentrification by showing the characters’ attachment to their “uninhabitable” home. In one of the scenes, they try to ensure the protection of supernatural powers and organize a festive celebration of the statue of a local deity, found by Junkie Kitten among the waste. The statue's face is obscured so it is not possible to tell which religion it represents, but it answers the characters’ need for hope by reenchanting the urban space.
The tent theater and the Migrant Workers Home in Picun invite us to reconsider Dai's concept of “shared space.” They can be described as spaces of alterity that claim the right to organize parts of urban space differently. The tent literally shares its space with the city, but it also creates a liminal space in which major transformation becomes possible. Cultural activities organized by the NGO, such as creative writing classes and theater workshops, could also be seen as a form of secular reenchantment of urban space. Participants in these activities confirm that they help to create an emotional connection to an otherwise often heartless urban space (Jian 2018; Picerni 2019; Yin 2019), but no less importantly, they evoke dreams, fantasies, and desires. Some of the literary careers of workers associated with the Picun-based NGO, such as Fan Yusu 范雨素, confirm that subalterns can indeed represent the city on their own terms and be heard. Finally, the tent, Picun, and even the waste dump in Crow2Topia are all spaces that have to negotiate their right to be in the city with its political power, capital, and social mainstream values. At the same time, however, the cultural space shared by the Migrant Workers Home and the Beijing-based division of the tent theater has opened itself to new possibilities that may emerge from its dynamic connections to other grassroots theater projects across Asia.
Ecosystems of Asian Grassroots Theater
Tracing influences, networks, and exchanges has become an indispensable part of discussions about modern theater in Asia. With regard to grassroots theater, the academic ground was broken by Eugène van Erven (1992) with his introduction to the “theater of liberation” movement in Asia. Rossella Ferrari's (2020: 46) book on transnational theater points to the existence of a range of “metaphoric ecologists and botanical signifiers that have been mobilized to denote geopolitical configurations, cultural crossings, and patterns of identitarian formation in the Sinophone world.”
Sakurai's theater vocabulary fits well into this conceptual framework. His Taiwanese tent division's name, Haibizi 海笔子 (Ocean Pencil), was derived from the ecosystem of the water plant shuibizi (literally “water pencil,” kandelia obovata), an evergreen that can be found around coastal areas in Asia. The mangroves’ constant floating movement next to the “weak power” of the plants that have nothing to rely on but their own bodies (Chung 2018) make them suitable figurations in Sakurai's theater insofar as he emphasizes the nomadic, “liquid” nature of his theater. Moreover, Sakurai compares contemporary urban dwellers to refugees “exiled from the commons,” who, when confronted with collapsing nation-states and the disintegration of traditional communities, turn into small floating isles. His tent theaters question if it is possible for these floating islands to form new collectives, even if ephemeral, which he names “archipelagos” (qundao,-nesia; Sakurai 2016: 126–29).
Since the first tent performance in Beijing in 2007, the Migrant Workers Home has become part of Sakurai's theater archipelago. He has returned to Picun with different troupes to stage new plays, and one of the founders of the NGO, the singer-songwriter Xu Duo 许多, has appeared in several of the tent's performances. Consequently, Sakurai's mobile theater project that seeks to retell the Asian narrative from a subaltern perspective has helped connect the village-in-the-city in Beijing to a transnational theater network. Within the borders of the PRC, however, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the exact impact of Sakurai's theater on grassroots Chinese theater groups, such as the Beijing-based New Workers Theater Troupe (Jia 2008), the Mulan Community Theater (Zhao Z. 2019), and the Green Rose Center and North Gate Theater Society (Zhao C. 2018) in the south. These groups are all attached to labor NGOs that work with migrant workers and adapt techniques associated with Augusto Boal's theater of the oppressed (Zhao Z. 2017), or revisit the local, politically engaged theater from the 1930s (Tao 2007: 91; Connery 2020: 139). Even in the case of the more experimental groups, such as Grass Stage, cooperation with Sakurai has been sporadic. Finally, the intellectuals who invited Sakurai to the PRC voiced their disappointment with his inability to connect with the Chinese lower strata (Sun 2015: 219–30), and internal conflicts and misunderstandings eventually broke up the Limen tent division. Nevertheless, the most recent (2019) production by the Picun-based New Workers Theater Troupe, Women 2s—Laodong jiaoliu shichang 我们2s—劳动交流市场 (We2s—Labor Market Exchange), created in cooperation with the Xinku zhi wang (King of Toil) troupe,21 demonstrates that the tent's aesthetics have been working their way through the rhizomatic theater networks and been reappropriated by the actors, who are much more than passive recipients of the director's vision (Iovene, forthcoming).
In 1999, when Dai Jinhua (1999: 31–32) first spoke about a “Chinese shared cultural space,” she discussed the brief alliances between opposing forces of “official” and “grassroots” and “mainstream” and “marginal” culture against the backdrop of the commodification of cultural production in the PRC. In her more recent (2019) rendition of the space theme, Dai emphasized that it has become increasingly difficult to name a set of aesthetic values which may neatly distinguish mainstream culture from the cultural margins. Instances of collaboration between unofficial transnational theater troupes and local organizations such as NGOs, universities, or cultural institutions show that the shared space they temporarily cohabit is always one of contested and competing ideas. The fragmented, inconclusive text of Crow2Topia shows that members of different social classes involved in the production of the play are all preoccupied with self-exploration in search of individual and collective identities that would allow them to cope with the challenges of the contemporary world. According to the Limen tent collective, in this world, intellectuals and workers alike are marginalized by transnational capital and technocrats and are thus no longer in the position of the spiritual avant-garde that was assigned to them throughout much of the twentieth century. Crow2Topia reflects the intellectuals’ preoccupation with their past, their struggle with failed utopian projects such as communism, and their reluctance to commit to any teleology. Their engagement with tent theater demonstrates that, like the activists affiliated with the Migrant Workers Home, they perceive culture as an important avenue for social and political practice that provides space for critical engagement with the contemporary world. Picun's invitation to Sakurai's tent troupe bespeaks the aspirations of Beijing-based intellectuals and activists to become, despite or because of their marginal position within the Chinese society, one of the focal points of transregional reflection on the futures of postrevolutionary Asia.
Prior to his arrival in the PRC, Sakurai refused to cooperate with the official cultural institutions and local authorities. However, to erect his tent in Beijing, the director had no choice but to seek permission from the local authorities, and the Chaoyang District became his main supporter. In 2007 Sakurai not only relied on assistance from his local collaborators but also agreed to making the tent's first performance part of the official celebration for the centennial anniversary of the introduction of modern spoken drama in China (Nie 2014: 16).
For more on the Black Tent, see Goodman (1986) 2003: 114–17.
The rehearsal venue is closed to the public for the entire process. During rehearsals, members of the troupe take extensive notes that they later share with each other, but like the physical venue in which the rehearsal take place, the notes are not accessible to outsiders. I gained some insights into the process from conversations with Sun Bai and Zhou Zan, members of the first Beijing-based tent division (July and August 2018). Pictures documenting the collective's 2013 self-exploration were available on the troupe's Douban homepage when I wrote this essay, but the website is no longer available (https://site.douban.com/209183/room/2750250/; accessed July 2021).
In 1984, Sakurai's friend, the director Mitsuo Sato, who worked on a documentary dedicated to the workers’ struggle, was fatally stubbed by a member of the underground organization (Hsu 2013: 76). The documentary, entitled Yama—Attack to Attack (1985), was completed by a group of filmmakers headed by the director Kyoichi Yamaoka, who was also murdered soon after the completion of the movie. Sun Bai (2015: 191–92, 211–12) discusses the impact of the San'ya events on Sakurai.
Sakurai and Chung Chiao met for the first time in the Philippines at the Cry of Asia theater festival (Lin 2004: 63). In 1999, when Sakurai arrived in Taiwan, Chung Chiao, together with his Assignment Theater, was organizing grassroots theater workshops for earthquake victims in the region of Shigang (Smith 2005). This attempt to alleviate disaster-related trauma through theater practice fit well with Sakurai's healing philosophy of self-exploration.
For more on the performance of the Shanghai-based collective, Grass Stage, see Ferrari 2020: chap. 4. In Guangju Sakurai met the Chinese theater scholar and practitioner Tao Qingmei, who later introduced him to Sun Heng and the Migrant Workers Home in Picun (Nie 2014: 5).
For a detailed discussion of the text and performance in Taipei, see Hsieh 2019. With this play, Sakurai reconnected with active social movements as the production was embedded in a series of protests against the forced eviction of residents of the Losheng leprosy sanatorium in Taipei.
According to Zhao Chuan 赵川 (pers. comm., April 24, 2020), there is nothing symbolic about by Sakurai's troupes leaving the wooden elements behind. They did it for practical reasons, as there was no storage available.
Zhou Zan is a scholar of Chinese literature affiliated with CASS, a poet, and a translator. Sun Bai is an assistant professor in film and media studies at the People's University of China in Beijing.
Since then, the group has changed its name twice and currently operates as the Liuhuo Zhangpeng Jushe (Fire Star Tent Theater).
Zhao Chuan (pers. comm., September 2, 2017), the founder of Shanghai-based Caotaiban (Grass Stage) theater, recalls that at this moment the differences between the three of Sakurai's theater troupes became clearly visible. While most of the members of the Japanese and Taiwanese troupes were manual workers experienced in physical labor, the Beijing division consisted of academics, who could not construct the tent without the help of the other troupes.
My discussion of the play is based on the unpublished script by Sun Bai and Zhou Zan (2010), as well as conversations with Sun, Zhou, and independent theater directors Zhao Chuan and Chen Si'an 陈思安 during my research stays in Beijing and Shanghai in 2011, 2016, and 2018. I would like to express my gratitude to my interlocutors and, particularly, to Zhou Zan for sharing the manuscript with me.
For more on the debates on traditional drama in the PRC, see Greene 2019.
For an introduction to the text and a translation of the key scene from the earliest Mulian play by Zheng Zhizhen ), see De Bary et al. 2000.
Wonton serves fried noodles with crows’ meat to his customers. This is an allusion to Lu Xun's story “Flight to the Moon,” collected in Old Stories Retold. See Lu (1926) 2009.
The female poet-scholar Zhou Zan created and played the character, but Xingtian has no fixed gender.
For more on representations of subaltern and the role of intellectuals in Maoist theater, see Chen 2002.
The prototypical protagonist from Lu Xun's short story “Kong Yiji” is a self-styled scholar who failed the imperial examinations. See Lu (1919) 2009.
Dai Jinhua and Sun Ge 孙格 were among the intellectuals who watched Sakurai's tent plays in Taiwan and later invited the director to the PRC. See Sun 2015: 218.
Unless otherwise stated, all translations are my own.
The founder of the troupe, Qiujun 球菌, participates in the activities of the current tent collective in the PRC. “Xinku zhi wang” is also the name of Sakurai's small publishing enterprise, which he established in Taiwan in order to financially support the Haibizi troupe (Taozi 2006a: 19).