Written in 1934, Cao Yu’s “Thunderstorm,” has become a staple in Chinese dramatic literature. The plot grapples with unsettling themes of revenge, incest and class disparity, and continues to captivate modern readers, Simeon Busano ’16 being one in particular.
Having read “Thunderstorm” while studying abroad in China, Busano was struck by the classic story, and was inspired to adapt it for a senior thesis project, which was performed on May 7 in the Alumnae/i House. He wrote in an emailed statement, “It’s a story of survival, it’s a story of moving on after you have had your heart broken, it’s a story of healing [and] it’s a story about redemption, and I think that was so attractive to me … How do you move forward from a really really negative episode and how do you use that to make you stronger and better rather than bitter?”
While “Thunderstorm” is a classic throughout China, it remains virtually unknown in America. Cast member Jaimeson Bukacek Frazier ’19 remarked, “In China, it’s pretty much universally required reading in high school, but your average American has never heard of it.” For this reason, Busano was convinced that the story deserved to be told on an American stage.
Busano explained, “I chose to do a play because I have a very therapeutic relationship with theater at Vassar. I came into the theater tradition when I was a sophomore and I have been doing theater in order to heal and cope with things that have been a part of my growing experience at Vassar. It seemed only natural that I would do a play and anyway, the original work was a play so it was very much in my comfort zone.”
Busano’s adaptation of “Thunderstorm” remained true to the play’s plot. However, Busano was captivated by the character Fanyi, who was an originally a minor character but became the fulcrum of his adaptation. He wrote, “I was really struck by how in the original work there was an effort to vilify her and make her the…antithesis of virtue and really the impetus for the downfall of both of these families.”
Esther Xu ’18, an international student from China who was cast as Fanyi, grew up familiar with the story of “Thunderstorm” and appreciated Fanyi’s character in particular, and this motivated her to audition. She remarked, “It’s a very interesting play. The original play was focused on mostly class conflicts…it’s pretty melodramatic. But what Simeon wanted to do was retell the story from the perspective of one of the characters who’s typically considered the villain of the story.” Xu continued, “I really like the idea of retelling the story from her perspective and I really think they thought that I understood it so they wanted to cast me…My understanding of her and the whole play changed through the process.”
The adaptation of “Thunderstorm” was centered largely around retelling Fanyi’s historically misunderstood story and recasting her as a sympathetic character. Bukacek Frazier explained, “Simeon and the writing team essentially rewrote the script. We adapted the play and centered the focus on Fanyi, the matriarch of the Zhou family. In the original story, she ends up in a mental institution as a result of the suffering and pain she’s experienced. We wanted to bring that suffering to the forefront and really analyze the story from her point of view, as sort of a feminist retelling. We wanted to give her a closure and a legitimacy that didn’t exist in the original script.”
By retelling “Thunderstorm” from a modern feminist perspective, the play’s reimagining not only gave prominence to Fanyi’s character, but allowed each cast member to have a voice as well. Xu explained, “I kind of always wanted to act, but it’s really hard to for non-native English speakers to get a role here or someone without theater experience, which most people in this theater production don’t have any.”
In spite of the cast’s collective newness to theater, the undertaking of adapting the script was a group effort. Xu remarked, “It was definitely very collaborative, because each acting person contributed a lot to the script and also we would kind of modify the lines into our own ways, too.” She continued, “I think the play turned out to be very personal for each [member] of the cast. We feel like it’s a story that needs to be told, because there are always voices that are not heard and people usually view history in those set ways… When people retell the story, they either leave them out or blame them.”
Xu continued, “I think a lot of us can relate the stories back to our lives or experiences in China…China, to this day, is still very patriarchal. Feminism in China is kind of depressed, socially and politically, and as I was growing up people would tell you to not run because you wouldn’t look like a girl that way, or to wear dresses … Chinese international students, there are so many of us, but I don’t think that the majority of us feel that we have a voice on campus. We are trying, though.”
Busano saw the collaborative nature of his thesis as a way to work toward giving a voice to underrepresented students and characters alike. He remarked, however, “I wanted to be cognizant of the fact that as a Westerner it’s not my story to tell and that in order to accurately represent something on stage, I need to understand people with the more intimate knowledge of the cultural environment.”
He affirmed, “It was the most rewarding thing in the world, because it’s nice for people who are a part of our community and whose native language is Mandarin to be able to claim the space in a way that I don’t think until now they’ve been able to.”