In “The Chinese Lady,” playwright Lloyd Suh has created a gently amusing, lyrical, yet sharply pointed play based on the true story of the first known Chinese woman in the United States, brought to New York City in 1834, and put on display in a museum exhibition that was eventually bought by P.T. Barnum.
I admired this play when Ma-Yi Theater put it on for a too-brief run in November, 2018, and I feel the same way now that they’ve brought “The Chinese Lady,” with the same terrific two-person cast, Shannon Tyo and Daniel K. Isaac, to the Public Theater through April 10. Although little more than three years has passed, the production is now being performed in what amounts to a different era – a time when the play’s already rich metaphors have acquired some new and poignant layers.
The play begins when Isaac, portraying Atung, dressed in traditional Chinese garb and a Manchu queue hairstyle, opens a shipping container that reveals a small, box-like room decorated with gorgeous Chinese art objects – a Chinese fan and floral displays, Chinese lacquer boxes…and the Chinese lady herself (Tyo.)
“Hello, my name is Afong Moy. It is the year 1834. I am fourteen years old, and newly arrived in America,” she begins.
She offers her 19thcentury paying audience a glimpse into Chinese culture, not just by the clothes she wears, and the artifacts that surround her, but by her performance of a tea ceremony (and talk about the history of tea); her typical Chinese meal with chopsticks (which she prefers to the Western fork: “It seems a useful tool for the stabbing of food, but ultimately I feel it lacks grace.”). and the way she walks, on tiny feet, which were achieved through the practice of foot binding. “Americans consider it barbaric,” she says politely. “Personally, I don’t consider it barbaric. I like my feet. I have noticed there are traditions in the American identity that are similarly entrenched, despite some controversy about them among the populace. Such as corsets. Or the Transatlantic Slave Trade. “
The barb is both funny and piercing, and a sample of the meticulously balanced approach by Suh and director Ralph B. Peña (Ma-Yi’s producing artistic director.) There is much delicate humor in “The Chinese Lady,” primarily in the relationship between Afong and Atung, who was hired from the get-go to be Afung’s interpreter and her handler. If they don’t quite bicker like a married couple, that’s because the relationship is more tentative than that, even though it lasts for many years. She’s bossy. He defers…initially.
As Afong Moy spends year after year on display in America (“It is 1849 and I am 29 years old…It is 1864 and I am 44 years old…”) her story is woven together with the large and ugly themes in the history of the Chinese in America and of East-West relations in general: cultural appropriation (such as in the history of tea), exploitation, exclusion, discrimination and violence. A simultaneously comic and pungent example of cultural misunderstanding occurs in a scene between Afong and President Andrew Jackson (they did in fact meet), with Afong deliberately mistranslating everything either says. Afong treats the meeting like a diplomatic mission, President Jackson as a “diversion. I’ve always adored carnivals and freak shows. “
The real Afong Moy disappeared from any published records after 1850, but Suh keeps her alive as a witness to nearly two centuries of dark history, from the Opium Wars, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, and a series of incidents of brutal violence against Chinese-American laborers – and right up to the present moment.
And the present moment drives home two things in “The Chinese Lady” that didn’t register as emphatically three years ago.
Underneath the surface, both Afong and Atung, each in their own way, struggled with loneliness and isolation.
And that’s not all. The Public celebrated the first preview of “The Chinese Lady” with a party in the lobby that featured the Chinatown dance troupe Yip’s Dragon Style Kung Fu and Lion Dance. On his way to the party, a member of the dance troupe was physically attacked, not far from the Chinatown apartment where last month an Asian lady named Christina Yuna Lee was murdered.
The Chinese Lady
At The Public Theater through April 10
Running time: 90 minutes no intermission
Written by Lloyd Suh
The Barrington Stage Company and Ma-Yi Theater Company Production
Directed by Ralph B. Peña
Scenic design by Junghyun Georgia Lee, costume design by Linda Cho, lighting design by Jiyoun Chang and Elizabeth Mak, sound design and composed by Fabian Obispo, production design by Shawn Duan
Cast: Shannon Tyo and Daniel K. Isaac