Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
The Chinese Lady
There actually was a young woman named Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo). In 1834, she became the first Chinese woman to arrive in America. Suh's scripting is inspired by that reality, and the playwright, through research and imagination, creates her journey. Afong states her name, notes the year, and states that she is 14. Nathaniel and Frederick Carne are situating her within a room in Peale's Museum, in New York City, and people will be encouraged (25 cents adults and 10 cents children) to observe. Scenic and costume designer Junghyun Georgia Lee presents a room with walls adorned with paintings, some silk, and other artifacts. Afong wears colorful dress complementary to the atmosphere of the show.
Atung (Daniel K. Isaac) sits just outside the box-like space which displays Afong. He is there to evidently translate, accompany, and assist Afong Moy as her story is unveiled. Early on, the repartee between these two is wry: Afong questions Atung's relevance and he reiterates by saying, "I am irrelevant," and Afong continues to tell her story.
Over the course of this 85-minute play, well-directed by Ralph B. Pena, a curtain is drawn across the front of the stage every so often. After the first interlude, Afong gives notice of another year and her age at the time, and that episode commences. The pattern continues and the audience receives a transportive and illuminating look at Afong's life (a portion of which is fictionalized). A number of the sequences are educationally enriching while just a few lose momentum. Her relationship with Atung is anything but static as each reveals traits not obvious as the play begins. During the first few vignettes, they seem sometimes to be operating in separate spheres, but that is far from the case as the story evolves.
Afong speaks of the Carne brothers, who "showed" her to the public. P.T. Barnum (the next owner of the museum) was next. Afong very much wanted to tour America and did; she met President Andrew Jackson. She went to California, hoping to find other Chinese people. She realizes that she is forgetting a great deal about her native land.
As Afong Moy, Shannon Tyo is poised, warm, and inviting. She grasps and embraces her character. Daniel K. Isaac, playing Atung, is splendidly disciplined, friendly, and a vital component. The play is a two-hander and Atung's presence becomes increasingly compelling. He, too, dreams of China. Playwright Suh provides him with richer dialogue as the plot moves along.
The play is lyrical and flows forward in figurative waves. Tyo (with, for example, an early explanation of Afong's bound feet) garners attention right away. She is graceful, very much at home both within her room and with the audience watching her.
The Chinese Lady is composed with care by Lloyd Suh and enacted with specificity and detail by the two skilled performers. It opens a window upon the history of Afong Moy, doing so as the actors speak, for the most part, directly to the audience. It is frequently a play of verse and that is in its favor. The rhythmic nature of Suh's dialogue is welcome. Frankly, it was mystifying when many theatergoers, on opening night, laughed aloud again and again during the first section of the production. Yes, some moments are light and, true, Suh weaves in bit of comedy. The Chinese Lady, more importantly, is multi-layered, filled with dimension, and a show which provides invaluable insight.
The Chinese Lady, through August 11, 2018, on Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield MA. For tickets, call 413-236-8888 or visit barringtonstageco.org.