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Yu concludes residence with a bang

The arts are coming into play as Duke increases its presence in China.

Nick Yu, one of China’s premier playwrights, has spent the past five weeks working with Duke students in a course called “The China Experiment,” taught by Theater Studies professor Claire Conceison. As a playwright and marketing director of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, Yu has not only pushed theatrical boundaries but has also lowered cultural barriers, Conceison wrote in an email. Although he has traveled to 35 countries for theater festivals and taught at several Chinese universities, this is the first time Yu has worked at an American university.

“Since I can’t bring Duke to China, I wanted to bring one of the most exciting of these artists to Duke in order to help provide that first-hand experience [of working with Yu],” Conceison said, adding that she has worked with Yu several times while visiting China.

It is no coincidence that the Theater Studies department commissioned Yu at a time when Duke is strengthening its relationship with China, Vice Provost for the Arts Scott Lindroth said. He added that Duke is participating in several other artistic projects with China, such as the DukeEngage arts education program in Zhuhai and the 11 student dance group will travel to Beijing this summer to perform at the World University Games.

“It’s a nice intersection,” Lindroth said. “As we are developing closer ties with China, we are also beginning to develop these new acts in the arts that complement them.”

Conceison, who was drawn to Duke because of its commitment to China, deliberately requested Yu because he is from Shanghai. The city is close in proximity to Duke Kunshan University, and she expects that Yu will “spread the news about Duke in the region.” She noted that since Yu began tweeting about Duke on “Weibo”—a Chinese version of Twitter—his followers have doubled from 2,000 to 4,000.

Drawing inspiration from contemporary society, politics and interpersonal relationships, Yu wrote in an email that he hopes his plays can help people in other countries to better understand Chinese culture. He noted that 32 of his plays have been performed around the world in many different languages. His desire for global interaction through theater is what brought him to Duke, he said. During his stay, Yu has delivered lectures on the topic, visited classes at both Duke and UNC, conducted research and engaged in discussion with students and faculty about Chinese theater and politics.

“It is a challenge for me, but a great chance for me to let more people know about theater in China, and I think Claire [Conceison] is the right person to give me that experience,” he wrote.

Lindroth said that projects like this one, which combine cultural exchange with the arts, generate excitement abroad.

“There is a colorful diversity of expression [that] can enrich any kind of academic study,” he said.

Yu’s residency will culminate next Tuesday with a student performance of one of his newest plays—Das Kapital.

Inspired by Karl Marx’s writings, Yu said it is “a play about money, and all other things involved with money.” He said Das Kapital shows the relationship between the arts, culture, politics and—the focus of most Chinese urbanites—money.

“Das Kapital is a really unique production in China,” Yu said. “It is…so close to our lives in many aspects.”

When Yu first produced the play in Shanghai last year, he took strategic measures to avoid government censorship, which prohibits theatrical demonstrations of pornography, nudity and political criticism. There was limited publicity prior to the show’s opening, and the company invited officials to view rehearsals and provide opinions.

Although the Chinese government has directly censored three of his plays, including a translated version of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues in 2004, Yu said the intervention opens a door for important dialogue between artists and government officials.

“In some ways censorship is a game to play,” Yu said. “It’s usually not exactly that we stop doing something because of censorship, but that we need to keep struggling to make circumstances better [for artists].”

Yu said watching Duke students read and perform his plays is a memory that will stand out in his mind “just like the chapel stands out on West Campus.” He hopes that there will be more interaction between Chinese and American artists, academics and students.

“I think Chinese universities can learn a lot from this project, and I also want to do more for this kind of residency in the future, especially for Duke,” Yu said. “I have fallen in love with Duke in many different ways.”


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