The Chinese Lady, playing at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through October 31, is a fascinating blend of historical drama and inspired imagination.
The two-person show is based on the true story of 14 year-old Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo), who is brought to the United States from mainland China in 1834, thereby becoming the first Chinese woman to enter this country. The purpose for her sojourn is to be exhibited to the American public. She demonstrates how the Chinese eat, drink tea, wear exotic garbs, and how women walk with bound feet. She is attended to by a translator, Atung (John Norman Schneider), who becomes her surrogate parent, confidante, and guide to the new world.
What, at first, is a two-year commitment for her services becomes years, then decades of servitude. Throughout the years, she provides running commentary about America in the early and latter part of the 19th century as well as attitudes and actions against Chinese immigrants. We hear about the Civil War and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which imposed a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. Attracted by the western Gold Rush more Chinese seek their fortune in the United States, but are subject to harassment, beatings, and even lynchings. Within this context, Afong continues to be put on display around the country, growing older, more dispirited and aggrieved.
Playwright Lloyd Suh has crafted a world using primary sources, and a theatrical presentation to dramatize the story. He deftly uses the concept of this sideshow type act (in her later years Afong becomes part of P.T. Barnum’s group of human oddities) to educate as well as entertain audiences. I, for one, was totally unfamiliar with the Chinese Exclusion Act or such horrific acts of cruelty and death. Suh also explores the issues of identity and self-worth. Afong never returns to her homeland or has contact with her parents or family members. She is alone, unsure how she fits into American society; a commodity to be used and discarded.
The parallels in today’s world of attitudes toward Asian-Americans are alarmingly similar, where news accounts of hate crimes are all too prevalent.
While there is much pain and sadness in The Chinese Lady, there is also humor and whimsy to balance the play.
Shannon Tyo is superb as Afong Moy. She impressively appears, at first, as a shy, wide-eyed, though exuberant teenager, full of wonderment and self-importance. As the years progress, the actress develops into a fully mature woman, one who strikingly brings out the world-weariness and mental and physical exhaustion of the character. John Norman Schneider gives a subdued, nuanced performance, layered with disillusionment and mystery.
Director Ralph B. Pena successfully creates a miniature world - the small performance area - where Afong Moya holds court. He skillfully builds the dramatic tension from the awe and wonderment of a child to a resigned, disenchanted woman. The 90-minute, intermission-less play, flows smoothly through the repetitive scenes of Afong Moy and Atung coming out to surprise and enchant.
Scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee Cargo has strikingly taken part of a metal cargo container which, when opened, becomes a small thrust stage where Afong Moy presents her daily instruction and reflections.
The Chinese Lady, an entertaining and enlightening work, playing at Long Wharf Theatre through October 31.