Above: Lu Liang as Kuang Fu. I jacked this photo from the Shanghai Daily article that I link to below.
One of the highlights of my week was seeing the play “Under a Shanghai Roof” 上海屋檐下, written by the famous playwright Xia Yan 夏衍 （1900－1995). Xia Yan, ne Shen 沈乃熙， was born in the Zhejiang city of Hangzhou. He took part in the May Fourth demonstrations in 1919 and traveled to Japan in 1920 to study, where like so many other young idealistic Chinese students, he was introduced to Marxist theory. He joined the Guomindang in 1924 and after the “failed revolution” of 1927 he entered the Communist Party. Under the name Xia Yan, Shen became deeply involved in both film and dramatic theater production in Shanghai during the 1930s. One of my favorite films from that period is “The New Year’s Coin,” (ya sui qian 压岁钱）for which he wrote the screenplay. The film follows the passage of a New Year’s Coin through the hands of many types and classes of people, making for a wonderful cross-section view of Shanghai society in the 1930s.
In August 1937, Xia Yan’s play “Under a Shanghai Roof” was about to be performed in the theaters of Shanghai when the war with Japan broke out. He didn’t get a chance to see his play in action until 1957. By that time, Xia Yan was working his way up the ranks of the Ministry of Culture and other CCP organs dedicated to the theatrical arts. Though he would suffer under the Cultural Revolution, he survived those turbulent years and lived to the ripe old age of 95, witnessing nearly the entire 20th century and all the changes that this century brought to China.
Like the film “New Year’s Coin,” “Under a Shanghai Roof” portrays a cross-section of Shanghai society, focusing on the lives of several families living in close quarters within a typical Shanghai “stone portal” (shikumen 石窟门）lane house. The entire play unfolds in the setting of the lane house, whose rooms are open to the audience. This was a real stroke of genius on the part of the playwright, for it allows him to simultaneously present these people as they go about their daily lives. We are drawn deep into the world of neighborhood life in 1930s Shanghai, almost as if we were spying on a real neighborhood (which in a sense we are).
The play unfolds nearly in real time, compressing an entire day and night of lane house life into two hours of drama. It begins in near darkness as a beautiful and mysterious young woman in a red qipao dress opens the door to the compound and makes her way up a rickety flight of wooden stairs to her little cubicle on the second floor.
As she goes to sleep after a long night on the town, the rest of the families begin to wake up and prepare for the day. Directly below her is a small two-room apartment where a factory manager named Lin Zhicheng 林志成 lives along with his comely wife Caiyu 彩玉 and her daughter Baozhen 葆珍.
Next door on the ground level is another family, presided over by a well-meaning but pedantic fellow named Zhao Zhenyu 赵振宇. His wife is a typical Shanghai busybody who loves to stick her nose into the business of the others in the compound. They have a young son and a younger daughter.
Above the Zhao family is a young couple with an infant son. The husband’s father is visiting them from the countryside.
Over the course of the play, we discover that each family or party is enmeshed in a tragic circumstance. Lin Zhicheng is not the girl’s real father, for which the neighbor’s son relentlessly teases her. The young couple upstairs are extremely poor and have to pawn all their precious belongings, including the wife’s clothing and a necklace for their son. The mysterious girl above the Lin household is involved with a gangster type, a brutal slob who comes over to harass her.
The climax of the drama occurs in the second act, when Kuang Fu enters the scene. Kuang is the real father of Baozhen and was the lover of her mother Caiyu. Eight years before, he had vanished mysteriously, but not before asking his best friend, Lin Zhicheng, to take care of Caiyu and Baozhen. Over the years, with no news of his whereabouts, they took him for dead and carried on with their lives. Lin Zhicheng kept his promise, and of course he eventually married Caiyu and took over as the father of the household. Now Kuang Fu is back. The audience gasps--what will happen? How will Lin Zhicheng tell his best friend, seemingly returned from the dead (turns out he was languishing in a “pigeon cage” meaning prison) that he has married his wife and taken his place as the surrogate father to the daughter he never knew? How will Kuang Fu deal with this news? What will happen when Caiyu returns to find the two loves of her life confronting each other in her living room? How will Baozhen react when she finds out that she has a father after all?
I will not spoil the surprises that unfold in this drama in the second and third acts. Suffice it to say that it’s a powerful and complex story about the lives of the Shanghai “petty urbanites” and an outstanding example of the "socialist realism" of leftist Chinese writers at its peak. What makes the play so meaningful now, after seventy years, is that it clearly resonates with the real-life experiences of people in the city today. The audience, which was entirely Chinese (Gary Flint and I were the only westerners in the packed theater) reacted viscerally to the drama as it played out. Laughter at some of the funny bits was followed by tears, which flowed liberally by the end of the play--many an eye was being wiped as we exited the theater.
The actors and actresses who starred in this drama were simply superb. Lu Liang 吕凉, one of China’s leading dramatic stage actors, gave a powerful and deeply moving performance as Kuang Fu. His stage presence was magnetic, and the entire audience was drawn to his every word. Fu Chong 符冲 was brilliant as the moody, tragic Lin Zhicheng, who must deal with the guilt of betraying his best friend, piled up year after year like bricks, in the span of one afternoon. Xu Xin 徐辛 was utterly convincing as the nagging, gossipy wife of Mr. Zhao, while Zhang Xianheng 张先衡 captured the character of the pedant Zhao to a T. Yang Haoyu 样皓宇 did a great job of portraying a man buried by the crushing weight of poverty, as did Wang Yiran 王一然, who played his wife Guifen 桂芬. Ding Meiting 丁美婷 was simply ravishing as the sultry lady of the night, and gave a very authentic portrayal of a woman who was at the same time fierce, cunning, flirtatious, and deeply vulnerable. 信鹏 Xin Peng, who played her gangster companion, could not have been more appropriate as the lazy, brutal thug “Little Tianjin” 小天津. And who could criticize the children, who (and this is coming from the father of a soon to be 3-year old daughter) were entirely convincing in their bouts of teasing, playing, and tantrum-throwing. Shen Jiani 沈佳妮 had a very difficult part to play as the innocent Baozhen, but succeeded in moving the audience to tears as she met her father for the first time, unbeknownst to her.
Finally, I’d like to congratulate the director, Wang Xiaodi 王筱 for successfully staging such a complicated drama, with the actions and dialogues of several characters occurring simultaneously throughout most of the play. And kudos to the stage designers who put together such an authentic rendition of a Shanghai lane house, magically transporting us back to an earlier age in this city’s turbulent history. This staging of “Under a Shanghai Roof” is truly a world class production, deserving far more than the five runs it’s getting at the Shanghai Drama Arts Theater at 288 Anfu Road.