Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Chinese Lady
The Pear Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Love Letters

Joseph Alvarado and Joann Wu
Photo by Caitlin Stone-Collonge
A young girl barely fourteen dressed and in traditional, royal Chinese make-up sits in a small room surrounded by reminders of her Chinese heritage. With sparkling personality and sweet smile, she tells us that, while her lips are moving, she is not speaking; that the words we hear are not hers; and that the body, clothes, room we see do not exist. "What is happening is a performance; my whole life is a performance ... I am intended to be representative of The China Lady ... I am unlike any lady to ever live."

For well over fifty years, Afong Moy lived a life in a "room unlike any room in China," having arrived in New York in 1834 as the first known Chinese woman brought here by the owners of Far East Oriental Imports in order to "educate and entertain" ticket-buying American audiences about China. Her true life mostly on daily display is the basis for Lloyd Suh's The Chinese Lady, a fascinating, initially humorous, and eventually eye-opening and disturbing play (with important messages and implications for 2024) now at The Pear Theatre. Searing performances of the lead character, Afong (Joann Wu, alternating performances with Eiko Moon-Yamamoto), and her constant, performance companion and translator, Atung (Joseph Alvarado), soar by. The adept direction of Wynne Chan ensures slight glimpses, shudders, and gazes of the twosome deliver entire treatises of non-spoken but important meanings of cultural and immigrant significance.

The Pear's The Chinese Lady joins Berkeley Rep's just-closed The Far Country and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's planned The Heart Sellers in providing Bay Area audiences proof that Lloyd Suh is one of this country's most important living playwrights, as he provides new works concerning AAPI/Caucasian interactions and relations in the U.S.–both historical and current.

As we first meet Joann Wu's Afong Moy, she displays an almost childlike excitement as she demonstrates how she eats rice and shrimp with chopsticks, pours her tea with traditional manners, and walks proudly on feet with broken toes and bent arches, having been bound as a toddler in order to be as small as possible. In her next few performances, as scenes advance every year or two, Afong clearly believes she is acting as a bridge to bring the peoples of China and America together. She is particularly proud as she reenacts the day she met with "Emperor" Andrew Jackson (a White House visit that actually occurred) with the aid of Atung (Joseph Alvarado now with full Southern drawl and crude mannerisms). What she does not know is that Jackson's responses to her spoken hopes for increased trans-oceanic relations of the two countries are masked by her sensitive, caring translator. Atung fails to tell her in his abbreviated, positive translations, the true, callous, often racially biased remarks of the president–remarks like Jackson's "compliment" of her White House presence, "I have always loved carnivals and freaks shows."

As the shimmering, gold curtain closes and opens on Louis Stone-Collonge's small, circled, and impressively populated Chinese set design, the scenes progress through the years with Afong passing from teenager into young woman into middle-aged and senior years. Original music with intriguing Chinese melodies composed by Howard Ho are played on instruments often of another era, providing wonderful scene transitions and through subtle shifts of tone, transitions through the decades.

Joann Wu–with the aid of Sharon Peng's array of beautiful costumes and hair pieces that change with each of the many scenes–transforms Afong in maturity, character, demeanor, and outlook as she is on exhibit year after year in many cities, including New York. Once highly practiced, proudly performed movements full of dignity and heritage are slowly replaced over the years with spontaneous acts of rebellion/boredom like drinking tea from the pot's spout, sneaking a drink from a flask that definitely is not full of tea, or puffing on a cigarette while talking to her audience.

As she shows signs of increasing assimilation, Afong also begins to detail the increasingly dangerous and horrific plights of the many Chinese immigrants–mostly men–who have landed as needed laborers on U.S. shores with more and more examples of individual lynchings and group massacres occurring in state after state, coast-to-coast throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. All are abetted by the original passing and the continual renewals of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

With the stunning poise and sobering honesty of a woman who has been watched but has also seen so much during her long life, Joann Wu's Afong looks us directly in the eyes in the intimate Pear setting and thanks us for indulging [her] in listening to [her] past, "in hopes that you might see what it means for the present and how it might shape the future." Her words cut to the core as she wonders, "Are you looking at me? Can you see me?" With the current rise of anti-Asian sentiment and acts of discrimination and violence–even in our own Bay Area per today's San Francisco Chronicle–The Pear Theatre's engaging, educating, and electrifying 90-minute production of Lloyd Suh's The Chinese Lady is a wake-up call that deserves–no, demands–a full audience in each of its too-few remaining performances.

The Chinese Lady runs through May 12, 2024, in repertory with A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, at The Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View, CA. For tickets and information, please visit