Theater review by Helen Shaw
[Note: This is a review of the 2018 production of The Chinese Lady. The show returns for an encore stint in 2022 at the Public Theater.]
It takes only minutes of The Chinese Lady to see that two theatrical craftsmen, playwright Lloyd Suh and director Ralph B. Peña, have constructed the dramatic equivalent of a perfect cabinet. Every hinge moves smoothly; the herringbone joins are a low-key marvel. You can almost see yourself in its hard-won polish.
The set is a shipping container, which swings open to reveal a little room, covered with
flowered silk panels, inauthentic Chinoiserie decoration—and no door. We gradually realize that we’re not looking at a room at all: It’s more like a display case, built to show off a living, breathing girl. Suh has taken his inspiration from the real story of Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo), the first Chinese woman to come to the United States. Only 14 years old when she arrived in 1834, she was sold by her father to the Carne brothers, who exhibited her as a curiosity to people who wanted to see a tea ceremony or chopsticks or bound feet.
Suh’s version of Afong Moy is wonderful. As she talks directly to us, we learn she’s
cheerful and arrogant, a planner—she wants to exhibit a 14-year-old white girl when she gets home—and a true believer in fostering cross-cultural understanding. With her translator-attendant Atung (Daniel K. Isaac), she tours the country and even visits President Andrew Jackson. (She thinks the meeting is diplomatic, but he talks about delighting in freak shows.) Scenes leap across the years; her optimism dims. The real Afong Moy may have returned to China or stayed in the U.S. till her death, and as her known history grows more opaque, so does Suh’s play. Tyo’s monologue begins to sublimate into hints and suggestions; she mentions a “safe space,” but we’re not sure where she means. Her buoyant spirit begins to sink beneath the country’s Chinese Exclusion Act, and, more terrifyingly, the U.S. history of anti-Chinese pogroms.
Tyo is a performer of pure charisma, and she and Isaac enjoy a hilarious, spiky byplay: Atung clearly finds Afong Moy absurd, and her annoyance with him means that Tyo gets to spend nearly half the show giving Isaac irritated side-eye. Set and costume designer Junghyun Georgia Lee creates moments of real loveliness, and there’s great pleasure in just sitting and looking at the witty, pretty set and the brassy talker at the center of it. But Suh keeps slipping a knife in. Afong Moy holds one belief absolutely sacred: that her audiences are making an empathic leap when they watch her. She apologizes, in tears, for not having “done enough” to stop the lynchings. But what good could her performance ever do? Isn’t an audience just a bunch of gawkers, hungry for novelty? Provocatively, Suh has built a critique of “looking” itself into the play’s bones. All those people watched her for all those decades, and now here we are, watching some more. What an uneasy thought.
Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row (Off Broadway). By Lloyd Suh. Directed by Ralph B. Peña. With Daniel K. Isaac, Shannon Tyo. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
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