He hobnobbed with Charlie Chaplin. He was on good terms with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. His work deeply impressed theatrical visionaries like Vsevolod Meyerhold and Bertolt Brecht.
The man in question was Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), a towering figure in the history of Peking Opera. Known for his lapidary performances, as well as for the refinements he made to the Chinese art form’s practices and repertoire, Mei became an international superstar when he led traditional Chinese performers on tour to Japan (starting in 1919), the United States (in 1930) and the Soviet Union (in 1935 and 1952).
To celebrate the 120th anniversary of Mei’s birth, the Jingju Theater Company of Beijing, a Peking Opera troupe, is following the maestro’s globe-hopping ways. Following a stop in New York, the troupe lands at the Kennedy Center for performances on Aug. 27 and 28, of works that Mei created or made famous. The productions — an anthology titled “Classic Plays of the Mei School” and a battle- and martial-arts–themed work titled “Lady Mu Guiying Takes Command” — will showcase the resplendent costumes, elaborate and sometimes mask-like makeup and stylized vocal technique and movements that are among the hallmarks of Peking Opera. Expect sword dances, acrobatics and at least one plot twist involving sea cucumbers.
“We have a lot of success when we perform in other countries,” Li Enjie, the Jingju Theater’s artistic director, said the other day, speaking through a translator on Skype from Beijing, the art form’s namesake city. Peking Opera has struck some modern audiences as very much an acquired taste. But Li asserts that foreign theatergoers often like the form because it includes “a lot of martial arts and a lot of dancing.”
Seated next to Li was Mei Baojiu, Mei Lanfang’s son and an eminent performer and teacher in his own right. (He will be traveling to New York and Washington with the Jingju productions, though not performing.)
Mei Baojiu recalled being smitten by Peking Opera as a child. Encouraged by his father — whose specialty was dan (female) roles — the younger Mei made his own stage debut at age 10, he says. More recently, he has devoted energy to fostering enthusiasm for Peking Opera in his native land. “In China, now, a lot of seniors love the Peking Opera very much,” he observed. Through outreach programs, including competitions and opera-themed parties, he said, he and other aficionados “are now working on the process to get more young people to like Peking Opera.”
Fans of the genre — and interested novices — who beeline to the Kennedy Center for the Jingju Theater offerings will hear the operas sung in Mandarin Chinese. There will be subtitles in English, and also in Chinese, since even native speakers may have trouble understanding the sung Mandarin due to its archaisms and non-naturalistic rhythms.
Maybe the ghosts of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford will be backstage, saluting their old acquaintance Mei Lanfang.
Traveling abroad allows the Jingju Theater Company to celebrate the past. Travel abroad has allowed Malagasy filmmaker Haminiaina Ratovoarivony to ponder the present and the future. Ratovoarivony says his expatriate status — he currently lives in Chicago — gave him the perspective and boldness he needed to make “Malagasy Mankany (Legends of Madagascar),” an award-winning Malagasy-language movie set in the eponymous island nation off Africa’s eastern coast.
Coming to town with the African Diaspora International Film Festival 2014 — the Aug. 23 screening, which will have English subtitles, is billed as the film’s D.C. premiere — “Legends of Madagascar” is a road movie with comic inflections and a crime-drama twist. The story follows a young student named Jimi (Ben Elissar) as he travels from Antananarivo, the country’s capital, to his native village to visit his sick father. Along for the ride, in a none-too-reliable Mini Cooper, are two of Jimi’s buddies: the laid-back Bob (Mahon Andoniaina), who hosts a clandestine radio show, and the surly Dylan (Ratovoarivony), who has been involved in far shadier activities. As the three guys — plus a beautiful damsel in distress named Charu (Valeska Sanjy) — travel through the Malagasy countryside, they confront potholes, police roadblocks, a mysterious hitchhiker, and personal secrets that threaten to break into the open.
The screenwriter and producer of the movie, as well as the director and co-star, Ratovoarivony calls “Legends of Madagascar” his attempt “to answer this question from the African perspective: ‘What is the African people’s responsibility in the fact that Africa is so rich but so poor?’ ”
By “rich,” he elaborated, speaking by phone from Chicago, he means that Africa is blessed in natural resources and smart, hard-working people. So why is poverty such a big problem for a country like Madagascar?
Ratovoarivony felt he had gained some insights into the question while doing field work for his undergraduate degree in sociology at Antananarivo University. He wanted to share those insights with the public—including international audiences, who may associate Madagascar less with social realities than with the island’s spectacular biodiversity (or the DreamWorks Animation hit). A movie—a project he was equipped to tackle, having obtained a graduate degree in filmmaking in France—seemed the best way to pursue his goal.
Shot on location in 2011 with a Malagasy cast and crew, many of whom were alumni of a moviemaking workshop Ratovoarivony had previously led (he also roped in family and friends), “Legends of Madagascar” touches on the problem of corruption, as well as the issue of tensions between the native and Indian immigrant communities.
After the movie’s world premiere in Madagascar in 2012, the movie made rounds on the international festival circuit, proceeding to win multiple honors — including an award, last year, from the Hollywood Black Film Festival.
For all its serious, sociologically informed messaging, Ratovoarivony calls “Legends of Madagascar” a comedy. “The goal was to make people laugh — but, at the end, to make them think,” he says.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Jingju Theater Company of Beijing “Classic Plays of the Mei School”: Aug. 27 at 7:30 pm. “Lady Mu Guiying Takes Command”: Aug. 28 at 7:30 pm. At the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. Visit www.kennedy-center.org.
Malagasy Mankany (Legends of Madagascar) Aug. 23 at 3 pm. Part of the African Diaspora International Film Festival 2014, running at the Goethe-Institut, 812 Seventh St. NW. Visit www.nyadiff.org.