The Chinese Lady is a spiky history play, a taut two-hander that weaponizes its roots in freak shows of old to provoke thorny discussions about the pitfalls of representation in contemporary theater and the violence that Asian Americans face today.
Lloyd Suh’s comedy tells the story of Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo), the first Chinese woman to come to America. Brought to America as a teenager to help a pair of American merchants hawk Chinese wares, Moy toured America in lavish Orientalist exhibitions where people paid for the privilege of viewing “the Chinese Lady,” a subject of curiosity in her lavish, ersatz Chinese environment. Visitors paid for the privilege of viewing Moy, purchasing Chinese goods, and asking Moy questions through her translator, a Chinese man named Atung (played by Daniel K. Isaac with a haunted smile). After years on tour, Moy worked for P. T. Barnum before being cast aside by Barnum for a replacement: “the Chinese Belle.”
The script shows a canny awareness of the difficulties of dramatizing this history. Afong Moy was an object of curiosity to many Americans, due to her nationality, her gender, and her bound feet. Accounts of her life are almost exclusively written from the perspective of her American visitors. Telling Moy’s story now risks repeating her treatment from the 1800s, re-animating Moy only to treat her as an exoticized historical curiosity.
Suh, smartly, doubles down on this discomfort, casting the audience as exhibition attendees whom Moy directly addresses. How much has changed from then to now? Rich, predominantly white New Yorkers fork over money to be entertained by an Asian American actress in an Orientalist room as she performs and discusses the life of Afong Moy. Suh’s comedy exposes the hollow promise at the root of shallow theatrical representation—for the price of admission, theatergoers encounter other people’s trauma and pain, experience catharsis, and return to their segregated lives, pleased at their worldliness. Meanwhile, performers of color take to the stage, night after night, telling stories to move, to inform, to induce empathy, to earn a living. It’s a short line from the freak shows of old to what plays out on contemporary stages.
This subject matter has been covered fruitfully in past shows—Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus, about Sarah Baartman, a Khorkhoe woman who performed in London freak shows in the 1800s, is a clear analogue. But Suh’s play stands out for its hope, optimism, and humor. There’s a prickly tension between the earnest Afong, who believes her performances can bring Chinese and American societies closer together, and Atung, her cynical translator who, having known hardship in America, prefers to stay focused on the performance at hand rather than wait for change. Their conflicting viewpoints form the beating heart of the show: a vital debate about the unfulfilled promise of American pluralism in the face of American bigotry.
We check in episodically with Afong, who starts each scene by introducing herself to us while updating us on what has changed as the years flow by. Shannon Tyo delivers a sensitive and disciplined performance, deftly charting the evolution of Moy’s hope as a young teenaged celebrity curdling into disappointment as an elderly afterthought in America. Tyo’s counterpart, Daniel K. Isaac, is a gifted comedic performer, but his broad, winking passive aggression cuts against the emotional weight of later scenes.
Ralph B. Peña’s crisp direction keeps the story flowing and the history pressing. The design is beautiful: Linda Cho’s handsome historical garments and Junghyun Georgia Lee’s exhibition hall are welcomely lavish. Shawn Duan’s projection design cleanly transforms the set into sensuous dreamscapes, and Jiyoun Chang and Elizabeth Mak’s lighting design precisely underscores the heightened, presentational nature of the play, turning the spotlight on the audience at crucial moments.
Ultimately, it is Tyo’s Moy who turns The Chinese Lady into a rich and challenging evening of theater. As Afong Moy, Tyo is charismatic, naïve, impassioned, optimistic. Her remarkable composure in the spotlight makes it impossible to view Afong with anything approaching pity. The seriousness with which Afong treats her work makes us take her work seriously. At a meeting with President Andrew Jackson, Moy expresses her dignified belief that “through such proximity and visibility, we might be able to share the very best parts of Chinese culture and American culture with one another, in pursuit of greater empathy and commonality.” Our hearts break with Afong’s as Jackson sexually harasses her and her employers cast her aside.
Like Moy, the play is keenly aware that we are living through a particularly perilous moment for Asian Americans. In its final scene, The Chinese Lady unfurls a devastating history lesson about the fraught position of Asian immigrants and their descendants in America, connecting anti-Asian lynchings in the 1800s to present-day hate crimes, culminating in a chilling and urgent ending. Still, the production holds a hard-won optimism that what Afong Moy did matters; that what theater can do matters; that underneath the discomfort of confronting the unknown, there’s a radical potential for mutual understanding that can help make America a safe place for all.
In its final moments, Afong Moy jumps into the present day, addressing her comments to us directly: “It is a beautiful thing to look at something long enough to really understand it,” she says. “But it is so much more beautiful to be looked at long enough to be understood.”