The Chinese Lady, by Lloyd Suh, is on stage through April 10 at The Public Theater in Manhattan, directed by Ma-Yi Theater Company artistic director Ralph B. Peña. The play premiered in July 2018, but disturbing events over the past year have made it poignantly timely.
Based on real-life events, the story centers on Julia Foochee Ching-Chang King, called Afong Moy (played by Shannon Tyo). In 1834, Moy was brought to New York by a shipping magnate named Carnes who bought her from her parents. She was 14 (or so) and arrived at a time when few Chinese men and no (known) Chinese women had been seen in this country. Carnes put her on display, in order to promote the exotic trade goods he imported from the Orient. The exhibit was popular, and Moy was the first Chinese person to receive wide public acclaim and recognition in this country.
The room where Moy gives her performances is outfitted in “Chinese style,” and she describes her life there and her reaction to the New World. She demonstrates eating with chopsticks and the tea ceremony, and part of her act is to walk around the little room to show her audience how the practice of foot-binding inhibits her ability to walk. (The real-life Afong Moy toured America as a “living exhibit” for decades.)
Of course, in the beginning, Afong Moy cannot speak English, so she has a translator named Atung (Daniel K. Isaac), who is her servant and, as she says, “irrelevant.” He brings the food for the chopsticks demonstration and takes it away, he brings the tea service, and he shows audience members various artifacts that Carnes hopes they will buy. She is charming and funny.
Because the two of them talk naturally to each other, you don’t have a sense of how limited Atung’s English is until they meet President Andrew Jackson. You hear Afong Moy’s heartfelt sentiments about crosscultural communication and understanding and Atung’s translation (this is not word-correct, but you’ll get the idea), “She like it here.”
Afong Moy grows up before your eyes, evolving from a lively, optimistic teenager into a world-weary mature woman, now performing in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. As time passes, the play references the anti-Chinese laws and violent attacks on Chinese in America of the late 1800s. It isn’t necessary to dwell on the sad irony that these prejudices still generate violence, especially against Chinese woman and elders, despite the determination of the first Chinese Lady to reach out and teach.
(Watching Moy, in her beautiful blue-and-white costume, and seeing how her life and dreams shattered reminded me of a 2015 Metropolitan Museum exhibit, “China: Through the Looking Glass.” One of the costumes from that exhibit, similar to the one pictured, was fashioned by contemporary artist Li Xiaofeng from pieces of Chinese porcelain, simultaneously beautiful and broken.)
Theater production credits to Junghyun Georgia Lee (scenic design), Linda Cho (costumes), Shawn Duan (projections), Jiyoun Chang and Elizabeth Mak (lighting), and Fabian Obispo (composer, sound design). Contact the box office.
Photo credit for The Chinese Lady: Joan Marcus