BY JERRY TALLMER / “Outside people” are what we non-Chinese are to the Chinese — even when (or especially when) we sleep with them, maybe fall in love with them — and that is what this play is all about.
The four 20-ish young people of “Outside People” are:
Malcolm Ziegler, a confused young American (played by Matthew Dellapina).
Da Wei “David” Wang, a young Chinese wise guy (played by Nelson Lee).
Xiao Mei (pronounced Show May), Chinese and beautiful (played by Li Jun Li).
Samanya, African and beautiful (played by Sonequa Martin-Green).
The Innocent Abroad (well, maybe not so innocent) is Malcolm Ziegler — who, on arrival in Beijing after an extended 14-hour flight by way of Tokyo, sits dazed and exhausted in a rumpled T-shirt in an “expat” hip-hop bar while life (and the reality of exquisitely dressed Xiao Mei) accumulates around him.
Yes, sure, Zayd Dohrn, the son of not just one but, dear Sarah, of two flaming revolutionaries emeritus, has been to China not just once but many, many times.
“I have an apartment there, I work there. I have lots of friends there, and my wife” — Rachel DeWoskin, actress, author of “Foreign Babes in Beijing” — “lived there for seven years [as daughter of a professor of sinology] before we met,” Chicago-based Dohrn says during an “Outside People” rehearsal break here last week.
“The play is fiction, but my own first flight into Beijing was a dislocating experience as confusing as that opening scene in the bar where Malcolm is falling asleep over his food. You lose your bearings. It’s like being blind or something.”
The give and take in “Outside People” is half in English, half in what’s called pinyin Chinese — “or my very bad version of it, which my wife turned into a better version, and my fluent actors have now turned into a still better version.” American audiences should have no great difficulty grasping the meanings in any event.
Halfway through “Outside People” we suddenly learn that this particular Outside Person, Malcolm Ziegler, is Jewish. May one ask why, one asks.
“A couple of reasons,” says the playwright. “One is, I’m Jewish. Okay, half Jewish, because my dad’s a WASP. Here in America, being Jewish is one thing. There in China, it’s another. ‘Oh. Jewish! That’s great! We love Jews!’ ”
“In fact we Jews have a lot in common with the Chinese. Overbearing mothers. Intense family meals. High value on education.”
Is your mother overbearing, Mr. Dohrn?
With a smile, “She’s as overbearing as any other Jewish mother.”
Zayd Dohrn’s once much-headlined mother is Bernadine Dohrn, one of the key figures of the hit-and-run 1960s ultra-radical Weatherman Underground that took its name from a Bob Dylan song.
Well, Bernadine Dohrn’s days as an active Weatherman came to an abrupt halt with the March 6, 1970, explosion of an 11th Street Greenwich Village town house in which three would-be basement bomb-makers were killed.
Ms. Dohrn, then 28, was not on that scene, but the better part of wisdom transformed her and her guy, William Charles Ayers, then 25, into instant fugitives who would live in plain view anonymity for the next fifteen years — much of it at 520 West 123rd Street, not a block and a half from where this journalist-in-the-making had a generation earlier spent seven idyllic years at the Lincoln School of Teachers College.
When Zayd was seven, his mother turned herself in and spent a year in jail “while my dad took care of us three little boys” — Zayd, Malik, and Chesa Boudin (whose mother, Kathy Boudin, had been in that 11th Street town house, and survived it, and was thereafter a much-headlined fugitive in her own right).
Meanwhile to all of this, China had been going through convulsions and transformations of its own, some of which were planted in one’s youthful memory by crucial books like André Malraux’s “Man’s Fate” and Edgar Snow’s “Red Star Over China” — sexually and economically and every other which way.
And Bill Ayers? He had been living a quiet academic life at the University of Chicago for a good many recent years when suddenly, out of nowhere — well, out of Alaska — the word “terrorist” was draped around his neck in scarlet letters by a hysterical female by the name of Sarah Palin.
“It shows you how crazy they all are — a dark force in the world right now,” says the 34-year-old Gary Cooperish son of Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, father in his own right of Dalin Dohrn, age seven, and Light Dohrn, age four.
And yes, they too have a Jewish mother — that Rachel DeWoskin who lived in China for seven years before Zayd Dohrn met and married her.
None of this “Bill Ayers, terrorist” stuff could have been easy on you, the journalist says to the playwright and professor of playwriting at Northwestern.
“We all have our own legacy,” murmurs Bill and Bernadine’s son.