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Review: Lloyd Suh Reclaims the Story of The Chinese Lady From the Annals of History

Suh's 2018 play, running at the Public Theater, explores the life of Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to set foot in America.

Shannon Tyo in The Chinese Lady at the Public Theater
(© Joan Marcus)

Step right up, folks, and meet the amazing Afong Moy. First, she will show you how to eat with chopsticks. Next, she'll regale you with stories about the history of tea. And finally, what you've all been waiting for (and paid 25 cents to see) — she'll walk around the room and show off her tiny bound feet. Afong Moy: human museum exhibition; emphasis on the "human."

Afong Moy doesn't appear in history books. Records of her very existence stop after 1850, so she's too specialized to even be a Jeopardy! answer. But Moy is believed to be the first Chinese woman to ever set foot on US soil, and she spent the early part of her life on display for a paying public that was mystified by her every move. In Lloyd Suh's engaging play The Chinese Lady, Moy reclaims her own story.

This Ma-Yi/Barrington Stage co-production is now being presented by the Public Theater in somewhat of a victory lap — since debuting off-Broadway in November 2018, it's become a staple of the regional theater repertoire. But the production, which Ralph Peña directs with delicate efficiency for maximum effect, couldn't be appearing at a more unfortunately apt time. The Chinese Lady gives context to the current onslaught of racist attacks against Asian Americans and shows audiences how this horrible violence has always been part of the historic record, dating back to the earliest years of Eastern immigration.

As the play begins, the doors of a shipping container part to reveal Afong — played to beguiling effect by Shannon Tyo — ensconced in a box. She is giving us a bastardized performance of her Chinese culture, that her translator, Atung (Daniel K. Isaac), is not entirely helpful or honest in assisting. Chattel in a trade between her father and merchants Nathaniel and Frederic Carne, 14-year-old Afong and Atung do multiple shows a day for wealthy New Yorkers, not benefiting from the paying crowd in any way.

Daniel K. Isaac and Shannon Tyo in The Chinese Lady at the Public Theater
(© Joan Marcus)

As the years go on, Afong becomes something of a sensation, touring the country and even meeting President Andrew Jackson (who, like the general American populace, is more excited to view her as a freak show than as a distinguished citizen). When the Carnes sell her to P.T. Barnum, and then Barnum eventually upgrades to a younger model, the now-sixty-something Afong is forced to re-examine her self-worth in a country that will always view foreigners as the "other."

In a fast-moving 90 minutes, Suh creates a blistering indictment of the American colonialist mindset, framing Moy's story as but one example of this country's negative treatment of Asian people throughout history. Tyo is a perfect vehicle for this through-line, delivering a portrait of Afong that brims with hope to start and gradually devolves through decades of being on display. Her supremely moving performance, one that reveals new layers within each scene, is not only captivating, but a small miracle. Isaac, meanwhile, is a worthy foil, delivering cheeky asides about a figure he clearly finds ridiculous, until even he has been so beaten down by time that he can't do it anymore.

Costume designer Linda Cho provides sparkling versions of traditional Chinese garb, while scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee places the action within an ornate picture frame, harshly lit by Jiyoun Chang and Elizabeth Mak. All of that, plus Fabian Obispo's musical underscoring, becomes a diorama reminiscent of something you'd find at the World Showcase in EPCOT — authentic but not, and all for the benefit of the wealthy spectators with visions of "the Orient" dancing in their heads. It is as perfect a design concept for a play as I've ever seen, completely in keeping with the theme of performance versus reality.

True, there are aspects of The Chinese Lady that feel a little too didactic. The last 15 minutes, for instance, are a bit on the nose for a play that had spent the prior hour trusting the audience enough to get the point without explaining things so granularly. But these qualms aren't enough to wreck the overall experience: excellently acted and beautifully built, The Chinese Lady is an eminently worthy piece of theater that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

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