“What is happening is a performance. For my entire life is a performance. These words that you hear are not my own. These clothes I wear are not my own. This body that I occupy is not my own.”
In 1834, two traders of Far East Oriental imports to New York arranged for a Chinese girl of fourteen and of the wealthy class to come to the United States for two years in order to promote their business, appearing at Peale’s Museum for the “education and entertainment” of audiences who had never seen an Asian woman before. They had not seen such a person because Afong Moy was the first Chinese woman to set foot on American soil; and as such, she became quite a hit and a sensation. But after a few years, she went from near royalty to a sideshow freak as her uniqueness wore off, leaving no accounting of how her life continued or ended nor whether it ended here or back in her homeland of China.
Both the fascinating known and the mysterious unknown parts of Afong’s life and times in the U.S. become rich fodder for Lloyd Suh’s play, The Chinese Lady, now in its enticing, educating Bay Area premiere at Magic Theatre. With the pull of a rope, a richly elaborate curtain glowing in Chinese artistry opens to reveal on a circular stage a young girl in a beautiful purple and orange wardrobe delicately decorated with flowers, her hair done in a bun with flowers red and white peeking out (costumes designed by Abra Berman). She sits in a small room bedecked with Asian-Museum-worthy artifacts, prints, and tapestries (Jacquelyn Scott, scenic design), all lit with a brushed softness to give an exotic air (Wen-Ling Liao, lighting) and periodically peppered with tunes ancient and Chinese (Sara Huddleston, sound design).
Afong proceeds with a mixture of reserved eloquence and youthful enthusiasm to introduce herself, why she is here before us, and some history about herself. With big smiles and twinkling eyes, she gives an excruciatingly detailed description of how – starting at the age of four – the arches in her feet were bent and bound and her bones repeatedly broken in order to follow the Chinese tradition of acquiring dainty-sized feet. She then proudly walks around the room, raising a foot from time to time to display the final product to us as audience. As part of her performance, she also eats rice and shrimp with chopsticks and drinks tea while telling us its history and significance in her country.
Walking, eating, and drinking become the three pillars of Afong’s repeated appearances as we watch the years and her age advance. Rinabeth Apostol is remarkable in her ability to begin as a teenager who already has the grace and charm of someone much older and slowly to age into a more seasoned performer and conversationalist who still carries much youthful passion and fascination about things like possible travel to places like Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia – the last about which she waxes on in eagerness to see the cracked Liberty Bell.
But all along the way, her interactions often have a perfunctory quality (“I will eat, and you will watch me”), reminding us that what we are seeing and who we are watching is totally made up for our entertainment as we represent those audiences long ago. We are not here to get to know her or to see her as a person; we are here out of curiosity of the exotic, strange, and foreign.
Afong tells us she hopes that her being before us will lead to “greater understanding and goodwill between China and America;” and yet we already know that this is a young girl’s naïve dream as she sits there showing us how to eat with chopsticks (which she describes as “elegant and poetic) while also commenting how she finds as a stabbing tool, American’s forks are “violent and easy.” Yes, we are entertained; but as that audience of another century, we unfortunately not going to change our attitudes that will in any way make it easier for the increasing waves of immigrant Chinese coming to our shores.
One reason we realize that those audiences did not learn at the time much empathy or tolerance is they probably never heard nor saw the true Afong. The girl on display is accompanied by an interpreter, Atung (Will Dao), whom she dismisses upfront to us as “irrelevant.” Sitting off the staged room in a darkened corner, Atung is largely invisible and ignored except when he abruptly and rather matter-of-factly announces his stage directions (“It is time for you to walk” … “And now I will bring her food”).
However, we come to realize is that Atung is at least partly responsible for what Afong fears most, that “these white people they think I am simple.” All along the way, Atung takes metaphorically enriched phrases the young girl espouses – phrases like “the thought of seeing the whole of America roots in me like a jewel that has lodged inside my eyes and colors every part of my vision” – and translates as “She is excited.” Fortunately for us in this performance that we have already been told is not real, we do hear the actual Afong and not Atung’s white-washed interpretations.
Eventually we learn that Atung himself carries secreted dreams and unrequited desires in his American life where he has learned “I cannot have anything.” In a powerful soliloquy, Will Dao as Atung gives us a stirring, startling glimpse of what it means to be an immigrant that no one really sees or wants to see, including in this case the woman with whom he spends the bulk of his life.
As the years progress and the staged performances of Afong continue (eventually landing her in P.T. Barnum’s employment), changes occur in both characters and in their relationship; but the repetition of scenes also begins to wear on us as audience. I found myself looking at my watch an hour into the ninety-minute (no intermission) evening, wondering how many more years were going to lapse and how more many times the curtain would again open, already knowing Lloyd Sun’s story goes far beyond the known, recorded history of the actual Afong Moy. One of the key issues for me as the evening progressed became the outstanding dramaturgy of Sonia Fernandez that outlines in the printed program a highly informative timeline of “Chinese American History.” However because I had taken time to read the program prior to the play’s beginning, revelations of that history in the climatic part of the play itself that I think are meant both to educate as well as to shock us on “How did I not know this before?” were for me much less impactful and felt repetitive, having already read the very same facts in the program itself.
Further, while many touches of the director (Mina Morita) work well throughout of the evening, the staging goes on and on in what feels like a false ending (to the point some audience members start to weakly clap when they think the evening’s end has been reached while a few others respond with chuckles). When Afong does once again appear, her final treatise to us becomes a bit preachy and anticlimactic while trying so much to be very dramatic (with lights coming up on us as audience with the instruction to “really look at each other,” which it appeared no one actually did). The final lines the playwright gives Afong are in fact extremely powerful and sum up in a couple of questions the entire evening’s message. However, the lighting and timing devices and the monologue preceding those questions make Afong’s departing words less meaningful (in my opinion) and left me feeling rather ho-hum about the entire outing, even though the performances of the two actors and the effects of the creative team were overall outstanding.
Rating: 3 E
The Chinese Lady continues through November 3, 2019, Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://magictheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.
Photo Credits: Jennifer Reiley