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BWW Review: THE CHINESE LADY at Artists Repertory Theatre


This product runs through November 14 in the Ellen Bye Studio.

BWW Review: THE CHINESE LADY at Artists Repertory Theatre

The story of Afong Moy, the central character in Lloyd Suh's THE CHINESE LADY, now running at Artists Rep, so perfectly captures the American tendency to exotify, stereotype, and disparage other cultures that I should not have been surprised to learn that it's true.

Afong Moy, considered (most likely falsely) to be the first Chinese woman to arrive in the United States, came here in 1834 at the age of 14 as the result of what was supposed to be a two-year arrangement between her father and some importers of exotic goods. In this case, Afong Moy was the "good," put on display for the education and entertainment of American audiences. Her show consisted of her sitting in an elaborately decorated room (unlike any room in China, as she tells us), wearing a silk robe, eating with chopsticks, talking about the history of tea, and walking on her bound feet.

At the beginning of the play, like at the beginning of her time in the US, the goal (at least her goal) was primarily education -- Afong Moy wanted to bridge the gap between the Chinese and American cultures by highlighting their similarities, rather than just their differences. She toured the country and even met with President Andrew Jackson. But, as time goes on, American attitudes toward Chinese people become more prejudiced and antagonistic, and Afong Moy goes from cultural ambassador to sideshow attraction.

THE CHINESE LADY spans centuries, from Afong Moy's arrival in 1834, through the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, right up to the present day, when she would have been 201 years old. Afong Moy may not have arrived here with the quintessential American Dream, but she does experience its quintessential disillusionment.

Suh's intimate play -- the only characters are Afong Moy (played by Barbie Wu) and Atung, her translator (Bern Tan) -- is beautifully subtle, which is what makes it so effective. For a while, Afong Moy seems not to feel the sand shifting beneath her feet until one day she looks down and finds herself standing very far from where she started. The impact is that some plot points that are inevitable looking back (the play is based on real historical events after all) come as surprises in the moment.

The play provides plenty of food for thought about cultural relations, especially in how it positions the relationship between the two characters. Afong Moy is supposed to represent a "Chinese lady," but, at least at the beginning, she requires a translator. So, the Afong Moy that we get is not just the white importers' vision of a Chinese woman; there's an extra layer of abstraction -- our perception of Afong Moy is filtered first through a Chinese man and then through the white importers. How could we really know her at all?

ART's production is restrained -- a simple room, basic lighting, not a lot of movement (save when Afong Moy gets up and walks). It certainly captures the feeling of being trapped in a small space and stared at like a zoo animal, but it lacks the energy I typically associate with Lava Alapai's direction. Even when Afong Moy escapes her cage and Atung finally gets to speak for himself, it feels anticlimactic. The script is understated enough -- the production could do with a little more spark. That said, the evening I went, the temperature in the Ellen Bye Studio was perhaps a little too warm for sustained attention while sitting in the dark.

Overall, I liked a lot about THE CHINESE LADY. It's well written -- subtle with occasional biting humor -- and it's definitely timely as we stumble through the current national conversation about culture and identity. I trust the cast will be able to give it a little more zip as the effects of the 18-month theatre hiatus wear off and performances continue.

THE CHINESE LADY runs through November 14. More details and tickets here:

Photo credit: Lava Alapai

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