Zhao Hongcheng’s play “Be Seen” Shines a Light on Accessibility Issues in China

Starring an influencer who uses a wheelchair, the play has broken new ground for representation and accessibility in Chinese theater

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3 days ago 1 mins read

On May 1st, Zhao Hongcheng, a Bilibili influencer who uses a wheelchair, started another run of her 2023 play Be Seen in Shanghai.


Zhao’s path from online influencer to playwright and performer started when theater producer Shen Lujun noticed her videos on Bilibili, posted under the account name 大程子好妹妹. With an audience of more than 200,000 across Chinese social media, Zhao shares her daily life as a person using a wheelchair: work, journeys with her abled husband, and vlogs from her vacations around the world. Shen wanted to share Zhao’s unique lifestyle, but at first, the influencer did not want to put herself on display on stage, fearing that her experience as a person with disabilities might be reduced into merely an “inspiring” story for others. However, with encouragement from her husband she decided to take the opportunity to represent herself on stage.


The premise of the play is based on Zhao’s sense of conflict between the two versions of herself that she wants to present to the world: “The humorous, eager, brave version of myself. The nonsensical, weak, self-sabotaging version of myself. Whichever one I present, I am not lying. Yet, whichever I present, I am also lying.”


As such, the play shows both version of Zhao. She brings her optimism on stage in terms of how she faces daily inconveniences — the unneeded stares, the unwanted help, and the accessible bathroom occupied by cleaning supplies. Yet she also reveals a source of pain that she has never shared online: after undergoing ground-breaking surgery in 2015 that allowed her to walk, Zhao faced a lack of support from her loved ones and ended up back in a wheelchair. When RADII attended Be Seen, the audience was left teary-eyed by the end of the show, their applause resonating around the theater.


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The play’s set with the sign language translator at the bottom left corner. Image by the author.


Just as the subject matter of Zhao’s play broke new ground in the entertainment industry, the play’s May Shanghai run marked a step forward for accessibility in Chinese theater. A performance on May 4th was accompanied with Chinese sign language interpretation, one of the first theatrical performances in China to do so.


Beyond this, the play’s creators have taken further measures to welcome audience members with disabilities. The background music and Zhao’s lively narration help evoke visual elements on stage for people with visual impairment. In addition to the sign language interpretation, lighting design helps translate the play’s music for deaf or hard of hearing people. There is even a special seating section for those using wheelchairs.


While the Chinese sign language showing of Be Seen has already taken place, audiences can still enjoy Zhao’s show until May 19th at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center.


Banner image via playwright Chen Si’an.

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