12 Jun “BEIJING DIARY” DIARY by Ron Ehmke
I am moved, and a bit amused, that Just Buffalo would invite me to look back on a reading I did three decades ago, sharing an afternoon monologue marathon in June of 1989 at Ujima Theatre’s then-current space on Elmwood with Eileen Myles, the late, great Manny Fried, Tammy Ryan, Susan Hodge Anner, and Francine Witte. (What connected us, I think, was the fact that we had all either worked within a theatrical setting or at least wrote material meant to be read aloud.) I’m moved because it’s always nice to be remembered, and amused because the main thing that I remember about my own contribution to the event was that it was a flop.
I have long believed that—as writers, performers, human beings—our mistakes teach us a lot more than our successes. And I approach pretty much every creative opportunity as an experiment: What can I do in this setting that I haven’t done before? How can I build on what I know I can do well before it turns into something I am terrible at? Sometimes, particularly when I was younger, the question was How far can I take this crazy idea before the audience turns on me?
On this particular occasion, the experiment had to do with what I will call “instant history.” For the last ten years or so—inspired by both New Journalism and the first-person theater of folks like Laurie Anderson and Spalding Gray—I had been honing a persona in prose and onstage as a character. I saw, and still see, this character primarily as an observer of and a witness to things going on in the world around me. (Another big inspiration around this time was Frank O’Hara, writing poems about relatively trivial matters on his lunch hour from his day job.)
The experiment this time was to give this narrator figure something much bigger to ponder, and to ponder it in public while it was still fresh. I was moved to try this because the protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing had begun on April 15 of that year and climaxed on June 4, exactly a week before the Just Buffalo reading. It may be hard to remember or imagine a period when “the news” was not a vast ocean of tweets, livestreams, and text crawls, but more like a single stream (technically three streams, from three major networks) that was only turned on for half an hour every evening. The ill-fated democracy movement in China changed that, thanks to the recent introduction of CNN and the birth of the 24-hour live news cycle.
I decided to use my 20-minute slot in the reading to capture these two “historic” moments—the uprisings on the other side of the world, but also the birth of the new medium that was feeding us nonstop images of them in real time—in a very old-fashioned way, that of the storyteller, albeit equipped with a still-somewhat-novel word processor and dot-matrix printer. (Or was it a typewriter? I was a very late adopter of technology in those days.)
My own day job in that era was curating the performance program at Hallwalls, and the same weekend that all the shit was going down in Tiananmen Square, I was hosting the Bay Area performance artist Frank Moore and his informal commune of collaborators and co-habitators, who were in town to do a 5-hour-long audience-participatory erotic ritual. Naked. I should note that, as if this were not noteworthy enough, Frank had cerebral palsy and could only communicate by pointing a stick at a Ouija board and spelling words out, one letter at a time.
So my story “Beijing Diary” became a chronicle of that weekend, crudely juxtaposing my adventures with Frank and his crew against the constant reportage of what was happening in China. And, as I recall, it fizzled. More specifically, the Beijing part fizzled, because—as now seems obvious to me, 30 years later—the mere act of watching something on television, no matter how significant the event may be, does not constitute journalism. I didn’t have any insight to offer that wasn’t already clear to everyone in the audience, who had all just ridden the same emotional rollercoaster that I had. I certainly couldn’t manage to advance the discussion beyond what the Gang of Four (the British post-punk band, not the architects of the Cultural Revolution a decade earlier) had already observed in one of their first songs: “Guerilla war struggle is a new entertainment.”
The lesson I learned that day could probably be boiled down to yet another variation on the most clichéd and still truest lesson of all: Write what you know. I abandoned the notion of being a witness to History with a capital H and concentrated instead on telling my smaller stories. Within a couple of years I figured out how I could get at History (the AIDS epidemic, the attacks on the NEA in the early 1990s) through small, personal stories.
And then I moved on, gleefully pushing that less-than-ideal event out of my head for many, many years.
My story about that earlier story has a happy ending in the form of an epilogue, but we’ll need to fast forward 27 years to get to it. In 2016 I staged a reading/performance in honor of Hallwalls’s 40th anniversary. The experiment this time (one I have yet to abandon) was to see if I could create a new work out of pieces of very old ones. In the process, at the last minute, I remembered that “Beijing Diary” contained a digression on Frank Moore’s show—so I dug it up and discovered that it was both longer and more detailed than I’d remembered and that, unlike the Tiananmen Square material, it didn’t make me cringe.
In fact, it was one of the best-received parts of the new show, Road to Nowhere. All it really needed was the passage of time and a proper context. That’s the thing about “instant history”: It’s critically important to write things down as they happen (especially if your memory is anywhere near as buggy as mine), but it’s also wise to keep in mind how much history—personal, global, televised, or otherwise—is like a dream.
I’m thankful to Just Buffalo for giving me a venue for my little experiments, conducted when I was a young pseudoscientist. Even—and especially—the ones that did not feel particularly successful at the time.