Review: Lloyd Suh's Unforgettable THE CHINESE LADY at American Stage

Now on stage through February 25th, 2024.

By: Feb. 13, 2024
Review: Lloyd Suh's Unforgettable THE CHINESE LADY at American Stage
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“What is happening is a performance. For my entire life is a performance. The words I am speaking are not my own. The clothes I am wearing are not my own. The Room in which I am seated is intended to be representative of China, just as I am intended to be representative of The Chinese Lady: the first woman from the Orient ever to set foot in America, and yet this Room is unlike any room in China, and I am unlike any lady to ever live.” --Afong Moy in THE CHINESE LADY

Sadly, I didn’t know; this history, part of the fabric of our nation, was denied to me in various history classes.  It was obviously denied to most of us. 

Before last Saturday, I had never heard of the name Afong Moy, allegedly the first Chinese woman to set foot on American soil.  I never knew that Moy, just fourteen years old in 1834, had been put on public display, headlined as “The Chinese Lady,” where she would perform for white audiences, at first for edification purposes but later as a P.T. Barnum freak show curiosity.   I didn’t know that the curious would goggle not just at her eating with chopsticks or what exotic clothes she would don, but they would literally gawk as she showed off her walking skills with horrifyingly bound feet, a Chinese custom later banned.  I never learned that she had met the seventh President of the United States and would be the introduction to many Americans of Chinese culture.  

Until experiencing Lloyd Suh’s disturbing and beautiful THE CHINESE LADY at American Stage, I didn’t know any of this.  As Aristotle so accurately put it, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” And now I know how much information has been robbed from us over the years, and I stress anyone that is reading this sentence to venture to American Stage to see THE CHINESE LADY, to learn a forgotten soul and an entire neglected history.

For example, I had no real understanding of the custom of foot binding, which went on for nearly a thousand years before being deemed unlawful by the Chinese government in 1912. Projected images of this practice in the 1800s are unblinkingly shown during THE CHINESE LADY, where the process to create a sort of decorous beauty and elevated social status goes like this: All the toes (except the big toe) of an upper class Chinese girl would be broken and roped against the girl’s sole.  Then the arch would be strained and the foot bent over onto itself before being joined with a very long silk binding. After about two years, the heel and sole would be completely crushed together, creating a lotus-shaped divide in the middle.  The feet became miniscule (around three inches), and the women would have to wear special “lotus shoes.” (Interestingly, the last factory that created these “lotus shoes” closed fairly recently, just a little over two decades ago.)  In THE CHINESE LADY, much is made of Afong Moy’s bound feet, and hearing her describe this process in the sing-song voice of a teen is quite disquieting. (“I like my feet,” Afong claims.)  As are the instances when she delicately walks, almost prancing as part of her act, parading her feet for the warped pleasures of her audiences. 

But I had little if any idea about this.  And it’s not just knowing about these truths; it’s about seeing this person, this vibrant soul who would be on display like a demure zoo animal, eventually eclipsed by history.  It’s about understanding them and empathizing with them.  This is why theatre is so essential.  THE CHINESE LADY is a show about a historically important, previously unseen Chinese woman, forgotten by time and pushed aside by a changing world, finally getting her due, finally being seen.

It’s a two-person show, and the gripping, searing performances at the heart of this are unforgettable, to put it mildly.

Che’Li is an astounding artist who doesn’t so much perform as inhabit the skin of Afong Moy.  This is the type of performance that shakes you, that you talk about long afterwards.  People displayed as zoo-like creatures is nothing new (think Slaughterhouse-Five’s Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack imprisoned to the delight of the Tramafladorians, or Dave Bowman on Jupiter in a sort of zoo for the amusement of unseen aliens in 2001: A Space Odyssey, at least from my interpretation of it).   But this is different because it’s based on real life, not from the imaginations of Kurt Vonnegut or Stanley Kubrick.   “I have been told to highlight certain features that I possess, as they may seem exotic and foreign and unusual to you,” Afong says.  “I understand it is my duty to show you things that are exotic, and foreign, and unusual.”

Che’Li captures the growth of the character, from a giddy 14-year-old who’s chipper like an Asian Pollyanna evolving (or devolving, depending on how you look at it) into a more earnest, dour middle-aged soul.  Early on the character theatrically showcases the utilization of chopsticks, whose “grace and elegance”  are favored over the easiness of forks (“I wonder if they use forks in Pittsburgh,” Afong muses). In a moment repeated throughout the play, Afong holds the chopsticks in the air and, with tongue wagging, dramatically takes a bite of the food.  It’s funny at first, but it becomes more and more forced and dehumanizing as the show progresses.    

When, in their later years, Afong comes to the realization that they are being replaced by a new 14-year-old, we feel the character’s heartbreak, the what’s-it-all-for? revelation, and the gritty defiance. The journey never feels false or forced, mainly because Che’Li is so real; we buy into their youthful effervescence and deflated older self.   There are many reasons to see this production of THE CHINESE LADY, but perhaps the top of the list is Che’Li’s work.  “I don’t want you to forget me,” the character states at one point.  With Che’Li in the role, we never will. 

Equally as strong is Jacob Yeh as Atung, the “irrelevant” translator assigned to Afong. His monologue about halfway through the show, about a dream of his, is one of the show’s highlights.  “Sometimes when I dream, I dream of China,” he tells us.  “I dream of my childhood, of sky and streams of memory, of earth that bore me and mother and father that look like me. Sometimes when I dream, I dream of ocean, and the ship that carried me to all of these new worlds.” It’s gorgeously written and a home run when delivered by Yeh.

Yeh is also outstanding in his interpretation of President Andrew Jackson (called "Emperor Jackson" by Afong), including the racist President's  bizarre and incessant need to touch Moy's "disgusting and mesmerizing" feet.   

When the audience first walks into the theatre, we see Yi-Hsuan (Ant) Ma’s beautiful set behind a thinly veiled red curtain.  As the show begins, there we are in the audience, a bunch of mostly white faces peering at the sole Chinese figure onstage, much as it was in 1834.  Xiangfu Xiao’s lighting works quite well, and Giada Sun’s projections highlight the story, giving us both a literal timeline and grainy images that match well with Moy’s words.  Best of all is Gregory Keng Strasser’s direction, which keeps the 90+ minutes zooming by without feeling rushed.  And he gets stellar performances from his dynamic duo onstage.

At the end of the show, Afong Moy asks us to imagine what it feels like to be on display.  And then a live projection of the audience—me included—splashes across the backdrop and we fully and immediately understand.  We become self-conscious, guarded, adjusting ourselves to make the image more palatable.  It’s a breathtaking choice, one that caused more than one person to gasp.  In that moment, we and Afong now share time and space.  The character still lives among us, resurrected by the theatre.  Thanks to playwright Suh and the performance of Che’Li, Afong Moy has finally been breathed back to life. 

American Stage’s  production of THE CHINESE LADY runs thru February 25th, 2024.

Photo credit: Chaz D Photography.




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