Zayd Dohrn, Rachel DeWoskin Cross Cultural Divides In Life And Work
A scene from Zayd Dohrn’s play, Outside People, playing at the Vineyard Theatre.
By Lucas Kavner, First Posted: 01/10/12
NEW YORK — In the first scene of “Outside People,” a new play opening Tuesday at New York’s Vineyard Theatre, a young American man named Malcolm meets a young Chinese woman, Xiao Mei, at a bar in Beijing.
The two of them hit it off immediately, despite her occasional lapses in English and his far-worse grasp of Chinese. He’s jetlagged and disoriented and makes bad jokes about Bon Jovi, but she thinks he’s cute, and they find themselves back at Malcolm’s hotel room.
To break the sudden tension, he offers her a Sprite from his mini-bar. Well, first he asks her how to say “Sprite.”
“Shui Bi,” she says.
“Shui Bi,” he repeats, but his intonation is off.
“Fourth tone,” she tries to correct him.
“Bi?” he says again, changing his tone ever so slightly.
She laughs; he’s totally lost now. He’s also managed to say something offensive by accident.
“This is very bad word you say, Malcolm,” she says.
The linguistically-challenged connection between Malcolm and Xiao Mei winds its way through the heart of “Outside People,” a play about misconceptions, misunderstandings and how deep-seeded differences can excite and cripple relationships at once. It’s also about how one works to adapt to a culture, without ever feeling quite at home.
All themes the playwright, Zayd Dohrn, understands all too well. As the son of onetime Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, he spent some of his earliest years watching his parents hide from law enforcement, strangers in their own country. He watched his mother go to jail. And in 2008, he watched as Barack Obama struggled to define his own tenuous connection to Ayers, now an esteemed, retired education professor who was being attacked by Republicans as a “terrorist.”
Over the past decade, Dohrn himself has shared a few experiences with the Malcolm character in “Outside People,” balancing his years between the U.S. and China along with his wife, the writerRachel DeWoskin.
“I’d written a lot of plays in China,” said Dohrn, who is not quite fluent in the language himself. “But