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Theatre in Review: The Chinese Lady (Ma-Yi Theater Company/Theatre Row)

Shannon Tyo. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Can you make a compelling drama out of the life of a passive witness to history? In The Chinese Lady, playwright Lloyd Suh gives it his best shot, and he has a fascinating situation with which to work. His heroine, Afong Moy, is a Chinese adolescent who, in 1834, has been shipped from Guangzhou Province to New York. "My family has sold me for two years of service," she notes. "I will be here for your education and entertainment." She adds that she can be seen at Peale's Museum for the price of twenty cents for adults and ten cents for children.

There really was an Afong Moy, now known as the first female Chinese immigrant; she was put on display in New York in 1834, where she caused something of a sensation in the local newspapers. Suh initially exploits this situation for all it is worth, introducing Afong in a shipping container that opens to reveal an interior decorated extensively with chinoiserie -- nicely realized by set designer Junghyun Georgia Lee -- a style that, Afong adds, has nothing to do with China. In any case, she knows how to keep the crowds attentive: When mealtime rolls around, she displays her chopsticks theatrically, expressing skepticism about the utility of the fork. She expounds on the history of tea, pouring it in ceremonial fashion. And, aware of what her audience really wants to hear, she describes -- unemotionally, yet in terms that make one flinch -- the process of foot-binding, following up with a demonstration during which she hobbles around the room.

The Chinese Lady immediately brings to mind Suzan-Lori Parks' Venus, which makes use of a not-dissimilar situation focusing on Saartjie Baartman, a South African tribeswoman who, marketed as the Venus Hottentot in early nineteenth-century London, became, for a time, a kind of demi-celebrity. Parks struggled with her material, and Suh comes up against many of the same obstacles, most of them having to do with focusing on a heroine who has little to do but sit around and be stared at. With both plays, however, one is at least initially beguiled by the sheer strangeness of the premise and the obvious cultural critique contained within. Each contains rich material, if not necessarily for the theatre.

Certainly, in its early passages, The Chinese Lady fascinates. Afong is supposed to reside in New York for two years before returning home. But, as time goes by and no one makes a move to repatriate her, she settles into her role, learning to relish her peculiar form of stardom, regarding her viewers with a not-very-realistic sense of noblesse oblige. By the time she is booked on a forty-week tour of the US, she has begun to see her position as exalted. ("I have only recently come to understand the magnitude of my presence here," she says.) In these sequences, Suh undercuts Afong's pretensions with a sly sense of humor that lays bare her blinkered world view: "How I long to see Pittsburgh," she sighs.

And, as Afong's fame grows, so does her highly controlled impudence, born of the detachment that is the sine qua non of her life as an exotic cultural artifact. She has a way of using a faux innocence to make sharply satirical comments. "I have noticed there are traditions in the American identity that are similarly entrenched, despite some controversy about them among the populace," she says, "Such as corsets. Or the transatlantic slave trade." Contemplating the British, who, after experiencing tea in China, made it part of their national identity, she muses, "Is this not comforting? It is right? That one culture can be so moved by another that it simply cannot resist the urge to appropriate it for themselves?" She idly dreams up a scheme by which she would tour a fourteen-year-old white girl through her country, putting her on display "for the education and edification of the Chinese curiosity." In this scenario, Afong would install the young lady "in a room with a raised bed, shoes on her feet in the home, eating with a fork."

Afong speaks to us directly, but, as she notes, she knows no English and must rely on Atung, her male translator, with whom she has a rather spiky relationship. She repeatedly dismisses him as "irrelevant," but he is her conduit to her new world and he gets his revenge, turning her elegant phrases into bald pidgin when he feels like it. Thus, he undermines her meeting with "Emperor" Andrew Jackson, who, in any case, isn't likely to be very broad-minded when it comes to non-Caucasians. "This was a marvelous diversion," he says, as the end of their meeting draws near. "I've always adored carnivals and freak shows. As a boy I would delight in them, and it's been a long time since I've recaptured the memory."

For all the irony that Suh mines from the core of this situation, The Chinese Lady drags in its later sequences for the simple reason that nothing really happens. As the decades fly by and Afong goes into decline -- her fame fades, especially after she is sold to PT Barnum, who treats her as just another item in his cabinet of curiosities-- one's interest in her wanes drastically. The playwright tries to expand her story to a wider canvas -- she considers joining the California Gold Rush and she also observes the country's increasing xenophobia, which culminates in the Chinese Exclusion Act and subsequent riots against her countrymen -- but the play feels increasingly static; for all the acuity of his observations, Suh isn't making the best use of what the stage can do.

Under the direction of Ralph B. Peña, Shannon Tyo invests Afong with a natural authority that keeps one interested in her fate. There's an edge to her voice that becomes more and more prominent as her career fails and the Chinese increasingly become objects of loathing -- she may be a victim, but she's not a fool -- but there's little that she can do to enliven the longueurs of the script. Daniel K. Isaac underplays Atung skillfully, hinting at levels of irritation and desire to which he will never overtly admit; when he drops out of the action, he is missed.

In addition to the satirically "Chinese" set design, which is dismantled as Afong's situation grows increasingly dire, Lee has dressed Tyo in a series of attractive (and, I think, authentic) silk outfits, including a really spectacular hat. Oliver Wason's lighting makes good use of footlight looks to emphasize the artificiality of Afong's existence. Fabian Obispo has provided some Chinese-style melodies, a piano rendition of a nineteenth-century spiritual, and background music at the reception with Jackson. (Rather wickedly, the music played during the curtain call is a peppy arrangement of "Chinatown, My Chinatown.")

For all the considerable fascination of its central character, The Chinese Lady ultimately disappoints: Having established Afong's daily routine, it basically repeats itself, substituting commentary -- which is, admittedly, frequently pointed and witty -- for meaningful conflict. There might be a magazine article in Afong, or -- more likely -- a good book. But a play? -- David Barbour

(13 November 2018)

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