Review: Lloyd Suh Recovers the Story of the Chinese Lady from the Annals of History

Go ahead, folks, and meet the amazing Afong Moy. First, she will show you how to eat with chopsticks. Then she will regale you with stories about the history of tea. And finally, what you’ve all been waiting for (and paid 25 cents to see) – she’ll walk around the room and show off her little bound feet. Afong Moy: Human Museum Exhibition; emphasis on “the human”.

Afong Moy does not appear in the history books. Records of its very existence end after 1850, so it is too specialized to even be a Peril! to respond. But Moy is believed to be the first Chinese woman to ever set foot on American soil, and she spent the first part of her life exposed to paying audiences who were mystified by her every move. In Lloyd Suh’s captivating play The Chinese ladyMoy reclaims his own story.

This Ma-Yi/Barrington Stage co-production is now presented by the Public Theater in a victory lap – since its Broadway debut in November 2018, it has become a staple of the regional theatrical repertoire. But the production, which Ralph Peña directs with delicate efficiency for maximum effect, sadly couldn’t come at a more opportune time. The Chinese lady gives context to the current onslaught of racist attacks against Asian Americans and shows the audience how this horrific violence has always been part of the historical record, dating back to the early years of Eastern immigration.

At the start of the play, the doors of a shipping container reveal Afong – played to seductive effect by Shannon Tyo – ensconced in a box. She gives us a bastardized performance of her Chinese culture, which her translator, Atung (Daniel K. Isaac), isn’t entirely helpful or honest in helping. Chattel in a trade between his father and merchants Nathaniel and Frederic Carne, 14-year-old Afong and Atung put on several shows a day for wealthy New Yorkers, benefiting in no way from the paying crowd.

Daniel K. Isaac and Shannon Tyo in The Chinese lady at the public theater
(© Joan Marcus)

Over the years, Afong becomes a sensation, traveling the country and even meeting President Andrew Jackson (who, like the general American public, is more keen to see her as a freak than a distinguished citizen). When the Carnes sell her to PT Barnum, and then Barnum eventually moves on to a younger role model, Afong, now sixty, is forced to re-examine her self-esteem in a country that will always view foreigners as “the other “.

In 90 quick minutes, Suh creates a searing indictment of America’s colonialist mindset, presenting Moy’s story as an example of this country’s negative treatment of Asian peoples throughout history. Tyo is a perfect vehicle for this continuous line, delivering a portrait of Afong that oozes hope at the outset and gradually evolves over decades of exposure. Her immensely moving performance, which reveals new layers in every scene, is not only captivating, but a minor miracle. Isaac, meanwhile, is a worthy foil, delivering cheeky asides about a character he clearly finds ridiculous, until he’s been so beat down by time he can’t do it anymore.

Costume designer Linda Cho offers sparkling versions of traditional Chinese clothing, while set designer Junghyun Georgia Lee sets the action in an ornate photo frame, harshly lit by Jiyoun Chang and Elizabeth Mak. All of this, plus Fabian Obispo’s musical underscore, becomes a diorama reminiscent of something you’d find at the World Showcase at EPCOT – authentic but not, and all for the benefit of viewers wealthy with visions of “the Orient” dancing in their heads. It’s a design concept for a room as perfect as I’ve ever seen, completely in keeping with the theme of performance versus reality.

Of course, there are aspects of The Chinese lady which feel a bit too didactic. The final 15 minutes, for example, are a little on the nose for a play that had spent the previous hour trusting the audience enough to get the point without explaining things in such a granular way. But these scruples are not enough to spoil the overall experience: perfectly interpreted and beautifully constructed, The Chinese lady is an eminently worthy play that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

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