A NANKING WINTER by Marjorie Chan, directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones, with Leon Aureus, Ella Chan, Brooke Johnson, Grace Lynn Kung and Stephen Russell (Nightwood/Cahoots). At Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Previews begin Saturday (February 23), opens Wednesday (February 27) and runs to March 16, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday and February 29 at 12:30 pm, Saturday-Sunday 2 pm (except February 24 at 7 pm). $25-$36, Sunday pwyc, previews $12. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNNN
Staying silent about one of the last century’s most appalling bloodbaths only compounds the crime. So says actor Grace Lynn Kung, who stars in Marjorie Chan’s A Nanking Winter.
“Not to tell about Nanking, not to keep its history alive, is committing another crime,” she says.
Just as European Holocaust deniers refuse to acknowledge that the Nazis murdered millions, others call into question the deaths of 300,000 Chinese civilians and the looting and rapes in Nanking after the Chinese invaded.
Chan (China Doll) counters that argument in a fascinating play that looks not just at the event itself but also at an author who tries to document it.
That figure is inspired by Chinese-American writer Iris Chang, who was incessantly harassed after her book The Rape Of Nanking brought the 1937 event to North American attention. Chang committed suicide in 2004.
“It’s a gift to be able to play both Irene Wu, the character based on Chang, and Little Mei, a figure caught up in the action of 1937,” says Kung. “In the first act, the audience sees Irene poring over her research material and findings; in the second, the episodes are brought to life.
“The second act gives me the fodder to create Irene in the first.”
Irene has to push back against her publisher and the publisher’s lawyer, who try, along with her husband, to compromise her findings and dismiss her work.
Later, the performers become Japa-nese soldiers and diplomats and the residents – maybe prisoners is a better word – of Nanking’s Ginling College for Women, where their protectors are a female Christian missionary and, surprisingly, the German who heads the local Nazi party.
“It’s exhausting to play Irene,”
nods Kung, who appeared in Slings And Arrows as well as fu-GEN’s Paper Series, “but I get a chance to break out from that tense role by playing Little Mei in the second act.
“Abandoned by her mother, Little Mei doesn’t believe in what she can’t see. That’s why she keeps leaving Ginling and going out to see the destruction around her. Unless she has her own evidence of the bodies, she can’t accept what’s happening.”
Kung doesn’t want the play to be the kind of history lesson taught in school. She mentions the recent documentary Nanking, which also raises public awareness of the atrocity.
“We’re so separated here in North America from acts like these, but they go on around the world even now. And I think that the Chinese community doesn’t talk about this sort of incident.
“I’m in my 20s, and I’d never heard these stories before.”