Lloyd Suh’s new play, The Chinese Lady, takes us on a journey with the first Chinese woman to set foot in the United States. Her name was Afong Moy. She arrived in 1835 at the age of 14 and was put on display as “The Chinese Lady.” The cost of admission? 25 cents for adults, 10 cents for children. Co-produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company and the Barrington Stage Company, the cast of two–Shannon Tyo and Daniel Isaac–takes the audience on a journey through Afong’s life.
Afong (played by Shannon Tyo), we are told, comes from a well-off family, the youngest of seven, and has bound feet–making her a curiosity to New York audiences. Her family sold her into two years of service with American merchants. We are quickly introduced to Atung (played by Daniel K. Isaac), her translator, who we are told speaks both Chinese and English. Most of the speaking stays with Afong, with occasional interjections from Atung that bring warmth and comedy and humanity to these largely forgotten historic figures.
We follow Afong as she ages, but remains on display, even meeting President Jackson. Her optimism begins to waver, her clothes changes, and still she thinks about relations between the U.S. and China, between her and her audience. Towards the end, the play rapidly casts its audience through Chinese American immigration history via Afong–1882 Exclusion Act, the Geary Act, and on–before jumping to the present. This is an important lineage, but I felt this contemporary jump overly much and a bit didactic.
Still, Suh’s play seeks to dive into and through our constant conversations about identity and cross-cultural understanding and belonging and otherness, all the while weaving in our collective past. And that makes it worthwhile.
The Chinese Lady is playing at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd Street) through Sunday, November 18. Cost: $30-$42.25. Tickets are available by calling 212-239-6200; or online at: www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/The-Chinese-Lady/ or through TodayTix at https://www.todaytix.com/x/nyc/shows/12360-the-chinese-lady#noscroll
Photo by Eloy Garcia