A young girl with a vibrant smile, a unique costume, very small feet, a uniquely oriental room, in a shipping box. This is the first image your mind registers when you see the Ma-Yi Theater Company production of The Chinese Lady by Lloyd Suh at Theatre Row.
You get to know this young teenager over the course of the play as she ages from 14 to 82 and beyond. This young girl is Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo), who is witty, clever, humorous, classy, gracious, a girl from China... and an exhibit in America in 1834. While she is viewed by many; she can only speak to one, Atung (Daniel K. Isaac), her wise and caring translator, who is also her only link with English speaking Americans.
She is on exhibit, for the viewer's amusement, who see her ways as strange and something to be amused by, but for the young Afong Moy, she is doing something of great honor, of great service, she is building bridges. She is educating the west on east.
"I am the first Chinese American woman. I am the first Chinese woman you have ever seen. I am the first Chinese from nobility, the first educated Chinese, the first high-born, the first with bound feet, the first the first the first. And so you see, this gives me a great responsibility," she says.
It is heartbreaking to see this young girl thinking she is more than an exhibit, more than an object to satisfy people's curiosity of the east.
"Perhaps I should hire a fourteen year old white American girl to come with me to China, and display her in a room with a raised bed, shoes on her feet in the home, eating with a fork! Perhaps I can tour her throughout the country and let the Chinese look at her and study her, put her on display for the education and edification of the Chinese curiosity!"
She truly thinks that this could be a great way to connect people. Her hope is to return to China in 2 years, at the end of the contract that Crane brothers had with her father. Your heart breaks for this young innocent girl whose life has become that of a caged animal and who has no idea about her future.
While The Chinese Lady is heartbreaking and deals with the tragic aftermath of the Chinese Exclusion Act, it is also humorous, witty, clever and entertaining, which is the victory of the play.
I was so invested in Atong and Afong Moy's journey that I was left wanting to hear more about their lives, as the playwright moved from their journey to the historical events. I found myself wanting Afong Moy's personal journey through history more than the history itself.
I also found a deep connection with Afong's experience of being an immigrant with my own, perhaps that is what drew me so close to her, and had me wanting to know more about her struggles as someone who is also from outside.
Both Shannon Tyo and Daniel K. Isaac are amazing in their delivery. They steal your heart with their innocence and portrayal of two extra ordinary human beings as Afong Moy and Atung.
The writing is witty, and engaging. Ralph B. Peña's direction is superb, and so is the design team. There is a sense of calm while the storm rages in the story, I wonder if that was because of the music, the lighting design or the writing. But everything feels connected in a surreal sort of a way.
Afong Moy, might not have fulfilled her intention of educating, and connecting the world in her life, but The Chinese Lady sure has the promise and potential do so.
If you see only one show this season, watch The Chinese Lady.
(Photo by Eloy Garcia)