Afong Moy was the first Chinese woman in the United States. Brought to New York in 1834, she was put on display in a museum.
Out of this true story, playwright Lloyd Suh has fashioned “The Chinese Lady,” an often amusing but pointed and instructive play that is as deceptively simple as calligraphy. Its bold strokes are masterfully etched by actors Shannon Tyo as Afong and Daniel K. Isaac as Atung, her interpreter.
“The Chinese Lady” begins when Atung, dressed in traditional Chinese male garb and a Manchu queue hairstyle,opens a shipping container that reveals a small, box-like room decorated with Chinese art objects – porcelain vases, lacquer boxes, wallpaper of a delicate landscape with blossoms and tree branches. (Kudos to scenic and costume designer Junghyun Georgia Lee.) At the center of the room, a smiling Afong, in a traditional Chinese robe of bright pink bordered in blue, addresses the audience in a loud confident voice:
“Hello, my name is Afong Moy. It is the year 1834. I am fourteen years old, and newly arrived in America.” She is speaking to her 19thcentury audience to begin her standard presentation. This includes a tea ceremony (accompanied by a brief history of tea); then a meal she eats with chopsticks (in which she expounds humorously about the Western fork); and an explanation of the foot binding that produced her tiny feet, with which the audience is especially fascinated. A highlight of her show is her standing up and walking around, with tiny steps. Variations of the presentation are repeated over the years (“It is the year 1837, and I am seventeen years old…It is the year 1849, and I am twenty-nine years old…..”) As Afong ages, Tyo’s voice softens, and her face somehow seems to settle.
“The Chinese Lady” is a quieter theatrical poem, less plot-heavy, than Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Venus,” another play based on a true story of a foreigner exhibited as a freak. Afong Moy apparently caused less of a sensation (and is certainly less known) than Saartjie Baartman, who was born in what is now South Africa, and brought to England in 1810 to be exhibited in freak shows as the Hottentot Venus.
The playwright of “The Chinese Lady” is using the unusual story as a meditation on large themes, such as Western imperialism and exploitation. This is introduced slyly, when Afong talks about how Americans are fascinated by her feet but find the practice of foot binding barbaric. “Of course, in China, there are many who feel the same way, but it is tradition…I have noticed there are traditions in the American identity that are similarly entrenched…such as corsets, or the Transatlantic Slave Trade.” Such observations, strewn throughout the play, make Afong come off like a faux-naive Asian de Tocqueville.
The theme of cultural misunderstanding finds its fullest expression in a scene between Afong and President Andrew Jackson (inspired by an actual encounter between the two.) Afong treats the meeting like a diplomatic mission, and speaks with dignity and grace. “It is my hope that my presence here can lead to greater understanding between the peoples of China and America.”
Atung mistranslates: “I hope Americans will like Chinese.”
Jackson (who Atung is re-enacting for the audience) replies that he likes them already. “I’ve often found Oriental people to be quite winsomely exotic.”
Afung mistranslates to Afong: “I admire the Chinese people very much for their many fine qualities.”
The scene is funny, but it also gently stands in for the ugly history of inequity in East-West relations, and it ends with Jackson asking to touch her feet. This offends Afong, but she submits.
This relative subtlety is replaced by a blunt history lesson in the last third of the 90-minute play. Afong explains the Opium Wars, the massacre of Chinese-American laborers, and the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning Chinese migration to the United States. Sound designer Fabian Obispo’s percussive blasts in-between these latter scenes seem to drive the horror home.
Under the direction of Ralph B. Peña, “The Chinese Lady” manages to achieve something of a balance, delivering the harsh facts in a production that maintains its lyricism, thanks largely to the terrific design team, and is consistently entertaining, thanks to the two actors. Tyo and Isaac act with a restraint that borders on delicacy, yet they nail the humor of their interaction, which initially mostly involves Afong’s annoyance with Atung and her haughty treatment of him. His response goes from submissive to passive aggressive to what one might consider aggressive. (Isaac gets a particular moment to shine in a monologue in which he describes his dreams, which are full of longing and anger and frustration.) There feels a rich layer of metaphor in the changing contours of their relationship, which suggests an echo of other relations – between nations, between genders, between immigrants and the native-born.
If “The Chinese Lady” has a running time that could be trimmed by a few minutes, it has a run that is way too short. Inexplicably, it’s scheduled to close just a week after it opens.
Click on any photograph by Carol Rosegg to see it enlarged
The Chinese Lady
Ma-Yi Theater at Theatre Row
Written by Lloyd Suh, directed by Ralph B. Peña. Scenic and costume design by Junghyun Georgia Lee, lighting design by Oliver Wason, and sound design by Fabian Obispo. Cast: Shannon Tyo and Daniel K. Isaac
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
The Chinese Lady runs through November 18, 2018