BWW Review: THE CHINESE LADY At Magic Theatre Dramatizes the Life of Afong Moy, The First Chinese Woman In America
The Chinese Lady
Written by Lloyd Suh
Directed by Mina Morita
The life of a human display curiosity is uniquely presented in Lloyd Suh's dramatization of the life of Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to arrive on American soil. Brought over as a child of 14, Moy was eagerly accepted by a public fascinated by the exotic Far East. At first excited and full of youthful hope of sharing cultures, Moy and her translator and handler Atung realize that the America they idealized isn't what it's cracked up to be.
Atung, in traditional Chinese garb and long braided Queue, welcome the audience as we take our seats. The stage, created by scenic designer Jacquelyn Scott, is an octogon hidden on all side by silk drapery. When Atung pulls on a cord the drapes rise, exposing Afong, elegantly costumes in Chinese finery. She begins each exhibition performances with an introduction: "Hello. My name is Afong Moy. It is the year 1834. I am fourteen years old, and newly arrived in America."
For 25 cents (adults) we get to marvel at this exotic creature who proudly explains how her feet were broken repeatedly and bound in a tradition Americans can not fathom. She daintily walks in a slow circle around her enclosure, eats some traditional Chinese food and performs a tea ceremony. She's excited and committed to her duty- "to show us things that are exotic, foreign and unusual." She has an antagonistic relationship with Atung, calling him irrelevant and making sure she is the only star of this exhibit.
Rinabeth Apostol (Dogeaters, Vietgone, King of the Yees) is a joy as Afong, taking us through the arc of her emotional transformation from youthful exuberance to jaded has-been mired in her inertia. Knowing she is a false representation of a Chinese lady; she still earnestly goes through the motions of her act. But as she butts up against the reality of nasty American events, her viewpoint shifts. She's a caged bird that yearns to be free, to experience life outside the constricting borders of the museum.
Her counterpart Atung is played with Eastern restraint and stoicism by Will Dao (King of the Yees, Vietgone, Asian Explosion). Dutifully assisting Afong, he slowly begins to express his disgust and consternation with the willful Afong. He does not translate her true expressions, instead delivering her words as simple declarations. He has his own issues of being a Chinese man in America, glad that he's not a laborer, but contemptuous of the strange white people and their ways.
Suh touches on important issues facing any immigrant population - required for their labor in forging the American dream yet excluded from that dream rewards. When Afong meets President Jackson, a horrible racist and perpetrator of Native American genocide, she is spared his ridicule and disgust by Atung's kind act of mistranslating his words. He has Afong speak in metaphors of the fragility of freedom when she excitedly speaks of the Liberty Bell and suggests she's just like an animal in a zoo- caged.
With each lowering and raising of the curtain, Afong ages up and historical events are revealed. The British appropriation of tea-time and the resulting Opium Wars and invasion of China. The 1849 Gold Rush and migration and concentration of Chinese laborers to build the intercontinental railroads. Finally, the insidious Chinese Exclusion Act leading to the ostracization, murder and torture of Chinese immigrants. Each of these revelations wear down on Afong, breaking her spirit. She's drinking and smoking onstage, mocking her audiences with contempt.
When she's about to be replaced by a new, younger more talented version of herself, Afong realizes the futility of her existence. Atung will remain doing what he does, care for the new Afong. It's a sad commentary on cultural appropriation and xenophobia. Mixed with humor and awareness, The Chinese Lady takes us on a ride from hope to dissolution. The finale becomes a tad to preachy with a hit you over the head lecture on inclusivity and seeing Afong, truly seeing her. Still, the production is well done, well-acted and amazingly relevant in today's polarized world.
The Chinese Lady continues through November 3, 20190 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., Bldg. D, San Francisco. Tickets available at 415-441-8822 or at www.magictheatre.org
Photos by Jennifer Reiley