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The Chinese Lady

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 8, 2022

Daniel K. Isaac and Shannon Tyo
Photo by Joan Marcus
True story. Sometime in 1834, a cargo ship from China arrived in New York. It contained a consignment for Nathaniel and Francis Carnes, traders of Far East Oriental Import. Along with the art, artifacts, and other assorted tchotchkes to be sold as decorative objects to their customers was a teenage girl, whose parents had done a trade of their own: a payment to them in exchange for two years of their daughter's service. This is pretty much everything we can be certain about the girl known as Afong Moy. We can't even be sure that is her actual name. But entering the realm of inventive speculation, she has become the subject of playwright Lloyd Suh's The Chinese Lady, a cleverly conceived satire that stirs its gentle humor with a cutting edge in a beautifully rendered production (which premiered in 2018 at Barrington Stage Company) from Ma-Yi Theater Company, presented at the Public Theater where it opened tonight.

The Chinese Lady, skillfully directed by Ralph B. Peña, imagines the life of Afong Moy, who spends far longer than the two years of her contracted time on exhibit, first under the sponsorship of the Carnes cousins, who mostly use her as a pitch to sell their goods, then later under the auspices of P. T. Barnum, whose American Museum is a compendium of "oddities" from around the world. Every day she sits on display in a room, designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee in orientalist style, her face made up in bright white and red and wearing one of Linda Cho's silk costumes that has the look of a Wedgewood china pattern.

Never quite mastering the English language, Afong (Shannon Tyo), who is just 14 years old when the play begins, must rely on her translator/caretaker Atung (Daniel K. Isaac) to serve as go-between with an audience that pays to gaze and gawk at her during her "performances." Afong explains to us (for it is we who are the gazers and gawkers, after all), "it is my duty to show you things that are exotic, and foreign, and unusual." And that is how she spends her days: demonstrating how she eats using chopsticks, how she prepares her tea, and even how she walks about on her bound feet. The ever-helpful Atung obliges by carrying in the various objects of interest, and even by demonstrating with an artificial foot the painful process of binding.

"I have noticed that my feet are a source of constant fascination," says Afong. "Most Americans consider it barbaric." Then she quietly adds the zinger: "I have noticed there are traditions in the American identity that are similarly entrenched, such as corsets. Or the Transatlantic Slave Trade." Touché!

It is fascinating to watch the interplay between Afong and Atung, especially as performed with such perfect timing between Shannon Tyo and Daniel K. Isaac, who truly seem as though they have been together for years. Afong brushes off the generally inscrutable Atung as "irrelevant," but there are times he displays some real savvy, as in his interpretation of Afong's meeting with President Andrew Jackson. Afong sees herself as a cultural ambassador, while Jackson views her as just another freak in the freak show. It is an exchange that Atung delicately curates in translation between English and Cantonese, and one that shows the "irrelevant" factotum in a new light.

Many years pass over the course of the play, and we learn more and more about the underlying message of The Chinese Lady. Even in her relative isolation, Afong begins to understand the true nature of her position, both as a woman who is treated as a piece of property to be bought and sold, and as an object of stereotyping, where she is safe only so long as she continues to play her assigned role, one that grows increasingly wearisome over time.

Whatever ambitions Afong has had for herself are utterly quashed when she learns about the lives of other Chinese immigrants to America, mostly men who face bitter working conditions and the increasing ugliness and violence that is an outgrowth of xenophobia, carried out under the banner of America's "manifest destiny." A coda of sorts takes us to the present day and the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, a way of making sure we do not miss the point by thinking of everything we've seen as a relic of the past. It is, however, unlikely we will soon forget how Afong Moy gazes back at us while we are watching her.

The Chinese Lady
Through March 27, 2022
The Barrington Stage Company and Ma-Yi Theater Company Production
Presented at The Public Theater, Shiva Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: