Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Afong Moy was believed to be just fourteen years old when her father granted permission to brothers Nathaniel and Frederick Carne to bring his daughter from Canton City (now Guangzhou) to New York City, to promote the Chinese merchandise they were importing for American customers. What they had in mind was not a spokesperson, but an exhibit of exotica. Their idea hit the mark, and Afong Moy became a big attraction. The Carnes exhibited her in colorful Chinese attire, an embroidered silk jacket above silken pantaloons–shocking New Yorkers who had never seen a woman in pants–and surrounded by their exotic merchandise from China. As onlookers watched, Moy ran through a routine that included such traditional practices as pouring and drinking tea, eating with chopsticks, and walking in a circle on her small platform to demonstrate the pinched steps required by her tiny feet, which had been bound in the Chinese custom. As she spoke no English when she arrived, a Chinese man named Atung translated her remarks to the audiences, while acting as a sort of stage manager.
The Carnes had promised Afong Moy's father that she would be brought back to her home in China in two years. That never happened. After her success in New York, she was taken on a tour of American cities as far as New Orleans, meeting then-President Andrew Jackson in a "performance" in Washington D.C. When the Carnes were finished presenting her, she was shown at other museums and side shows, including P.T Barnum's famed American Museum in New York. Her last known public appearance was in 1850, and she left no personal accounts of her experiences.
The above is known to be true. Suh's play expands upon the truth, inventing the thoughts that run through Afong Moy's mind as she endlessly repeats her demonstration for audience members who pay to gawk at a real live Chinese lady. As Suh conceives it, Afong Moy initially believes she is providing a most honorable service, promoting understanding and peace between the Chinese and American people. During the play's ninety minutes, Afong Moy repeats her performance over intervals of years–eventually many more years than the real Afong Moy had done, with Suh inventing a later life for her.
Over the passage of time, her lofty ideals, coupled with naivete, become increasingly withered by both history and the tedium of her existence. She describes the massive influx of Chinese men seeking fortune in the California Gold Rush, only to find themselves used as laborers doing the most dangerous jobs in building the transcontinental railroad. When the laborers were no longer needed and it was felt the Chinese had become too numerous, Afong Moy tells us about the Chinese Exclusion Acts. Her conviction that she plays an honored role in fostering Chinese-American friendship degrades into a sense of humiliation, not as much for herself as for her people, as she maintains her dignity throughout.
Atung, Afong Moy's translator, is the only other character in the play. When he first introduces himself, Moy sharply cuts him off, telling the audience that he is irrelevant. The audiences have come only to see her, after all. Yet, in translating her words, Atung shapes the message being delivered. He understands what Americans want to hear, and that is what he delivers. This is especially evident in the meeting between Afong Moy and Andrew Jackson–Atung taking on the part of Jackson to replay the scene for Afong Moy. The scene is both immensely funny and stunning in its depiction of America's disdain for those who are unlike us.
Katie Bradley gives a fantastic performance as Afong Moy. We actually get a sense, through changes in vocal tone and body language, of her character aging from a girl of fourteen into a woman of many years, eventually just the spirit of that woman. Her delivery of her talking points to explain the importance of tea, her preference for eating with chopsticks ("chopsticks are elegant, forks are violent"), and a detailed account of foot-binding conveys the belief that in sharing these aspects of our differences, she will draw us closer together and also discover all that we have in common. As her perspective becomes jaded, Bradley continues to speak with the polite veneer of a docent at an exhibition, while revealing the bubbling anger at injustice and narrow-mindedness. Truly, it is a wonderful performance.
Michael Sung Ho plays Atung, and though he is less dominant in the play, his demeanor and growing presence are an essential counterpoint to Afong Moy, and Sung Ho plays the part perfectly. When he finally seizes a moment to unleash his true feelings and ambitions, it a shock, and yet wholly believable, for in subtle ways, Sung Ho had primed us for such a rebellion. The two actors play beautifully off one another.
Eric Sharp, an oft-seen actor, makes his live theatre directorial debut, and handles the assignment with aplomb, setting a tone that releases the satiric elements while maintaining the façade of historical enactment, and finally, of outrage. Joel Sass designed the gorgeous set and props, which call up the ambiance of an aggressively ornate Chinese restaurant. Matt LaFebvre's costumes are stunning, supported by Emma Gustafson's wig and makeup design, which accentuates the exoticism of Afong Moy. Kathy Maxwell designed the lighting and Montana Johnson the sound, both first rate. Dr. Hui Wilcox is credited as choreographer, and while there is no dancing, per se, Afong Moy's elegant movement and extravagant hand gestures, as she walks a circle on her hobbled feet, provide an arresting image.
The Chinese Lady is a gem of a play. It is highly entertaining, while provoking critical thoughts about how Americans have, throughout history, dealt with "otherness," an aspect of our national character that continues to be the source of problems. With sparkling performances by Katie Bradley and Michael Sung Ho in a production that hits all the right notes, this is one you shouldn't miss.
The Chinese Lady runs through September 24, 2023, at Open Eye Theatre, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please visit openeyetheatre.org or call 612-874-6368.
Playwright: Lloyd Suh; Director: Eric Sharp; Set and Props Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Matt LaFebvre; Lighting Design: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Design: Montana Johnson; Wig and Makeup Design: Emma Gustafson; Associate Director and Assistant Sound Designer: Emma Y. Lai; Music Curator: Gao Hong; Choreographer: Dr. Hui Wilcox; Dramaturg: Dr. Josephine Lee; Technical Director: Brandon Sisneroz; Stage Manager: Deb Ervin.
Cast: Katie Bradley (Afong Moy), Michael Sung Ho (Atung).