BWW Interview: Playwright Lloyd Suh Introducing His CHINESE LADY With Empathy
The Los Angeles premiere of Lloyd Suh's THE CHINESE LADY launches the Greenway Court Theatre's 2019-2020 season, with opening night September 7, 2019. In a co-production with Artists At Play, THE CHINESE LADY (based on a true story) features Amy Shu (as Afong Moy, the first female Chinese immigrant to come to America) and Trieu Tran (as Atung, Afong's translator/caretaker), under the direction of Rebecca Wear. Playwright Lloyd Suh (AMERICAN HWANGAP, WONG KIDS IN THE SECRET OF THE SPACE CHUPACABRA GO!, THE CHILDREN OF VONDERLY) took a few moments before flying into Los Angeles to answer my questioning queries.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Lloyd!
THE CHINESE LADY premiered at the Theatre Row Complex's Beckett Theatre in November 10, 2018. Have you made any changes to your script since then for this Los Angeles premiere at Greenway Court, or since the Milwaukee Rep production earlier this year?
There have been a few minor changes from each production. The most significant rewriting was done over the first couple of productions, but there were small things I learned from different iterations that led to adjustments here and there. I also had the opportunity to connect with Nancy Davis, who recently published an extraordinary book, also called The Chinese Lady, detailing her years-long work in researching Afong Moy's history. Some of her findings were really valuable and definitely made their way into the play.
Where did you find first become aware of this true story of Afong Moy, America's first female Chinese immigrant, THE CHINESE LADY is based on?
I read a brief description of her story in Erika Lee's book The Making of Asian America: A History. Lately I've been really invested in exploring that history, and Afong Moy's story connected with me really deeply. I spent a lot of time trying to find whatever I could about her life and history.
How hands-on in premieres of your works do you insist on?
It depends on the situation, but with a first production of a new work, it's important for me to be very active, not just in working on the text itself, but in working with the team to find a theatrical vocabulary for what the play is trying to communicate. But I also really enjoy being surprised, so I like to give space to actors, directors, and designers to follow impulses I might not have thought of. Ultimately I look to find an organic process, and figure out how hands-on I need to be based on what's happening in the room.
Afong was looked upon as a circus oddity due to the color of her skin, the shape of her eyes and the Chinese custom of women walking with bound feet. Will costumer designer Hyun Sook Kim be suggesting that actress Amy Shu as Afong walks with bound feet? Or do you have stage instructions written into your script on how to address the bound feet presentation?
Without giving too much away, I'll say that the play acknowledges itself as performance, and its contemporary distance from an unknowable, irreplicable history. And that the bodies of the performers are not the bodies of their historical counterparts. So it is noted in the text that the performers should move, speak, and behave in their natural rhythms, and not pretend to a mobility - or a voice, for that matter - that is not their own.
Had you ever see any Charlie Chan movies as a kid?
Not as a kid, no. But it was impossible not to be aware of the character, and what he represented, even at an early age.
I take it that your CHARLES FRANCIS CHAN JR.'S EXOTIC ORIENTAL MURDER MYSTERY doesn't use yellow face. Or does it?
That's a play that insists on examining the scariest and ugliest parts of this country's history of stereotyping and misrepresentation, and so, of course, it does - it has to, in order to confront it.
Did you catch the 1961 movie Flower Drum Song in your research of Asian actors in film?
Did you get a chance to see B.D. Wong in M. BUTTERFLY?
Unfortunately, that production happened before I was in New York.
I played the lead in Frank Chin's CHICKENCOOP CHINAMAN when he first workshopped it at The American Conservatory Theatre. When did you start following Frank's work?
I first became introduced to him as an undergrad, when I came across the play in a used bookstore.
Who were your writing idols/mentors starting out? What other writers do you admire?
I've been so lucky, in that I've been surrounded by a community of extraordinary writers that I really respect and feed off of. The folks at the Ma-Yi Writers Lab and The Lark have been crucial in helping me cultivate, navigate, and develop my work and its relationship to the theater ecology. In that way, I've been most influenced by my friends.
Can you share what projects will be having your creative focus in the near future?
I'm in the early stages of a new play commissioned by Atlantic Theater Company, on the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act, especially focused on those detained on Angel Island.
What message from THE CHINESE LADY would you most like the Greenway Court Theatre audiences to leave with after the curtain call?
About empathy. And how valuable it can be to strive for understanding.
Thank you again, Lloyd! I look forward to meeting your CHINESE LADY.
For ticket availability and show schedule through September 29, 2019; log onto www.GreenwayCourtTheatre.org