The Chinese Lady examines a little-known piece of history as it presents a timely exploration of the “other” in America

Photo by Lara Goetsch

Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady, about the life of Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to come to America, is a remarkable triumph for Timeline Theatre, director Helen Young, and—especially—Mi Kang, the young actress charged with bringing this little-known historical figure to life.

Timeline, with its focus on historicity and context, is the perfect theatre to bring this play to Chicago at this time. Suh’s work closely examines the ways in which Westerners (read: Americans) are wont to objectify the “exotic” aspects of what once was called “Oriental” culture…that word itself a sort of code for the allegedly otherworldly mysteries and marvels of the Asian culture. We either fetishize or fear what we do not understand, and both reactions are clearly true for the Far East.

Afong Moy, age fourteen, came to this country in 1834 as a human gimmick: she was an oddity for people to marvel at in promotion of Nathaniel and Francis Carne’s Chinese imports business. With her unusual and exotic clothing (costume designer Izumi Inaba certainly had some fun here) and her unnaturally tiny feet, which were stunted from binding, her otherness invited the curious (for a modest fee, of course). With a young man named Atung (Glenn Obrero), who translated for her before she learned any English, Moy traveled across the US “performing” her “show,” which—to judge from this play—consisted mostly of discussing the history and cultural meaning of tea, eating with chopsticks, and demonstrating that, yes, she could walk.

Suh’s version of Afong Moy retains all of this but allows us to see her as she might have been: a young woman with beliefs and feelings of her own who found herself forced into the public eye in a foreign land. Kang plays her at first with the innocence of one whose entire existence has become experiencing new things. She is as excited to present her culture to these strangers as they are to see her present it. We hear her in the way she undoubtedly heard herself, her fluent Chinese not rendered as choppy English but as mature, clear English capable of expressing any thought, no matter how complex, that she might have. Meanwhile, Obrero’s Atung (whom Moy at first dismisses as “irrelevant”) acts as ringmaster/guardian/one-man running crew and stage manager. While Kang infuses Afong with the curiosity—and the bluntness—of youth, Obrero plays the older Atung closer to the vest, allowing us for most of the play only tiny glimpses of what this man might be thinking about their unusual existence.

Like Afong Moy, Atung is present in front of us for almost the entire play. Unlike her, he generally stays silent except when he needs to move things along. While he sits at audience level, she is alone on the stage whenever the ornamented curtain opens, dressed in a variety of exquisite ensembles, mostly sitting formally in a room meant to suggest Chinese design and filled with vases, lamps, and other items the Carnes brothers had for sale. (At one point, Atung walks in front of the audience holding a price list.) The room, which we see through a cut-out in a wall, is scenic designer Arnel Sancianco’s (lovely) interpretation of another interpretive concept of Chinese architecture: the Carnes brothers’ traveling show was set in their version of what they had seen in the East, and was in its own way as derivative and false as anything one might encounter in Chinatown. Sancianco’s set (though it prominently features paper lanterns for that “exotic” touch he seeks to imitate) is surely much more elegant and realistic (and frankly what the Carnes boys wished they had). It also has secrets, but I’ll let you discover that yourself.

As scene after scene rolls on and Moy is getting older, she suspects—and later understands—more and more about the way that she and her culture of origin are being exploited. At one point, she meets President Andrew Jackson (whom she refers to as “Emperor”), and Obrero is highly impressive as he deftly plays both Jackson, with his Tennessee drawl, and Atung as he really would have sounded, translating in patchy English as best he could. Meanwhile, Kang’s Moy—who does not actually understand most of what the American leader is saying—is left confused and diminished by his unsettling leering at her otherness and dainty beauty.

Director Young has an interesting task in this play: she has two actors playing very different kinds of Chinese immigrants in the mid-19th Century and appearing in many variations of the same scene. Kang’s character grows older, more “Americanized”—as Suh theorizes that Moy would have done—and more frustrated with her situation, while Obrero’s Atung remains mostly saddled by his taciturn demeanor and often limited to the actor’s expressions to convey reactions. Both of them, meanwhile, tire of doing the same things again and again for so many years. Young, though, manages to make the repetition tell the story as clearly as the dialogue.

By 1851, Moy had faded from public sight. At that point, she had been a part of an exhibition by P.T. Barnum for a number of years, but no one actually knows what happened to her after she disappeared from history. Suh postulates that, as she continued her immersion in the American ways of life and thinking, she would have become more likely to be frustrated with having been torn from her family so young and brought to a foreign land as, basically, a commodity.

As Moy comes to understand her life better, the play becomes more and more an indictment of the American obsession (for better or worse) with foreignness. No one—not PT Barnum, not the Carnes brothers, not Andrew Jackson, not the people who paid their coins to see her show—ever really saw her at all. Rather, they saw the exoticized idea of her that her employers created and put on stage. Afong Moy was no more a human being to them than the nameless Chinese men who were slaughtered in San Francisco in 1871 by White mobs angry with them for taking away “American” jobs or the countless other immigrants, Chinese and otherwise, who were—and still are—detested and killed for the exact same reason, or the Black and LGBT Americans who are murdered each year because some White people just don’t like them.

Before the play Mi Kang (dressed in jeans and a plain white t-shirt) comes out and sits silently at the front of the stage, quietly observing the crowd as it will shortly watch Afong Moy. It’s strange and a bit unsettling, and it gives us just a tiny taste of what being Moy must have been like. But here—and onstage as well—Kang/Moy smiles a lot: disarming, honest, genuine smiles. One can only hope that the real Moy, finding herself as disposable in American culture as so many immigrants do, found ways to keep her own smile as well.

The Chinese Lady plays at Theatre Wit until June 18. Tickets are available from Timeline Theatre.

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