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Princeton Chinese Theatre’s “I’m Not Li Bai” explores self-identity, forgiveness

Madness, betrayal and a quest for forgiveness are the main themes of “I’m Not Li Bai,” a Chinese language play written by Bo Bai, directed by Huiwen Chang GS and produced by Princeton Chinese Theatre with English subtitles. As the protagonist, Li Xiang (Richard Hu ’16),develops the psychosis that he initially feigns, he struggles to reconcile himself with the people in his life who have betrayed him.

Xiang is a young entrepreneur whose business has faltered. To evade government regulations, he feigns madness to gain admission to a mental hospital. However, when his business partner sells him out instead of coming to his rescue, Xiang truly goes insane. In the hospital he befriends fellow patients nicknamed Leader, Mou Mou and Brando, as well as the elderly Aunt Hui Fang. Tiancheng Zheng ’17 gives an especially strong performance as Leader, who believes himself to be an important administrator in the Communist party. In his speech and mannerisms, he is especially formal, walking with his back rigidly straight and speaking in the syntax characteristic of a bureaucrat. Zheng’s acting also serves as a subtle critique of politicians who speak in pleasant-sounding words but hold no substantial promises.

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The question of self-identity is particularly salient in this play. All of the patients, with the exception of Aunt Hui Fang, have lost their original identity and instead try to act like somebody else. For instance, Brando, an aspiring actor, has been crushed by repeated rejections by film studios and now fancies himself as a world famous male lead. Ex-con artist Mou Mou was herself cheated out of her fortune and now does not permit herself to trust anyone. The main character, Xiang, imagines himself to be eighth-century poet Li Bai as a way to escape his present. The audience of this play may resonate with this show’s messages about self-forgiveness and self-acceptance.

The costumes in this play are well chosen and emphasize the characters’ situation in a mental hospital. All the patients wear blue and white pinstriped shirts and pants, demonstrating their unity and similar situations. Leader wears marching boots, symbolic of his persona of Communist party leader. Other characters go barefoot to signify the depth of their mourning and despair. In several scenes, the musical score blends in excellently with the action and dialogue. When Xiang reads the betrayal letter from his former business partner, a man he highly respected, a soft and mournful piano melody plays in the background. In another scene, a flashback to Mou Mou’s con artist days, a lively jazz tune is heard. Credit goes to Brian Tu ’15 and Rui Wu for their apt music selection.

Xiang’s descent into madness and journey to forgive drive the plot of this play, which reinforces a positive ideal of self-acceptance. Princeton Chinese Theatre has once again succeeded in delivering a high level of acting and a cohesive presentation, with a show that blends together well-delivered dialogue and moving musical scores. By following Xiang’s story, the audience will sympathize with his plight in this highly relevant play.

5 out of 5 paws.

Pros: Strong acting; tasteful music selections.

Cons: None.

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