Discover more from Y’all Weekly
Stage: The Chinese Lady
Writer Lloyd Suh and Three Bone Theatre take on a heartrending true story from the 19th Century. The Chinese Lady runs through August 12 at the Arts Factory at West End Studios.
In 1834, a young woman arrived in New York City, traveling from her home in Canton City, China.
Purportedly the first Chinese woman to set foot in the United States, history holds neither a certain record of her name, nor the precise circumstances of her departure.
Researchers are fairly certain she was the daughter of a wealthy family from Guangzhou, and that she was leased by American brothers Nathaniel and Frederick Carne to be used as a prop, a gimmick for their new business in Chinese imports. She was to sail back to her family in China after two years.
The woman who became known to Americans as Afong Moy never returned home. She was put on display at Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia, an early destination for what in the 19th century were termed exotic curiosities.
With the aid of her translator Atung (sometimes appearing in the record as Acung), she would entertain audiences, singing traditional Chinese songs, demonstrating the use of chopsticks, and walking around to show that her bound feet worked as feet. After 1850, there is no record of her.
“The Chinese Lady,” Lloyd Suh’s 2018 play about Moy and her translator, strives to illuminate her inner life and personal reflections on her experiences in America, details more absent from the historical record than anything else. Now on stage at Three Bone Theatre, actors Amy Wada and Stephen West-Rogers help fill in the gaps.
In Suh’s retelling, 14-year-old Afong Moy is brimming with enthusiasm and purpose. Naïve to the inhumanity of her servitude, she characterizes her daily performance as a noble contribution to a blossoming global connectivity. She is inquisitive, fascinated with every new detail of American culture from the food and the forks to the curious inaccuracies of the faux-Chinese set decorations in her performance space.
The Chinese Lady
at Three Bone Theatre
Performances at the Arts Factory at West End Studios
Written by Lloyd Suh
Directed by Robin Tynes-Miller
Starring Amy Wada
8PM Thursday August 3
8PM Friday August 4
8PM Saturday August 5
2PM Sunday August 6
8PM Thursday August 10
8PM Friday August 11
8PM Saturday August 12
Tickets from $15-$25
Of course, the decorations are not Chinese, Chip Davis’s set at Three Bone Theatre is not the actual room Afong Moy performed in, and, as the script acknowledges through its main character, Amy Wada is not Afong Moy. From the outset, Suh’s play coyly acknowledges its metatheatrical intentions.
“My name is Afong Moy,” Wada tells us, but quickly qualifies that this is not Afong Moy’s voice, nor her words, nor her body. In this way, Suh creates space for the liberties he must take to give Afong Moy, and Atung, the justice they would never receive in life.
Amy Wada embodies the character wholeheartedly. Her Afong Moy cannot imagine a world that does not have meaning, nor one where she does not have meaning. Generosity of spirit and indefatigable good humor flow through Wada, setting the optimistic tone that the play requires, heartbreaking foreshadowing in itself. Each new scene begins in a new year, with Moy growing older even as her spirit resists the numbing repetition of her daily life. As the cracks begin to appear, Wada’s refusal to bend to bitterness makes it bitter all the more.
Stephen West-Rogers, the foil to Wada’s tenacity, plays Atung with a wry stoicism. With so many extended monologues from Wada, the clues we get to her translator’s character are sparse. West-Rogers unfolds Atung for us carefully, a man whose own survival is tied to his task. His calculations, intended to protect both himself and his companion, are the greatest obstacle to the liberty Moy believes she possesses.
However, we find a welcome reliability in his Atung throughout, comforting to both Moy and the audience, accompanied by West-Rogers’s warm smirk. His stony bemusement is even more satisfying as he breaks character briefly to play-act as President Andrew Jackson in a swaggering southern drawl.
The tone and pace, set by Wada, West-Rogers, and director Robin Tynes-Miller, are pleasant, laying a foundation for the questions raised by the play and plenty of solid comedy.
As the irony of Moy’s determined positivity swells to a breaking point, however, chances for dynamic changes are not taken. West-Rogers’s tone remains flat in his most vulnerable moment, the character’s only chance for a deeper connection to its audience. Facing her greatest betrayal, Wada does not allow beats for breathing room even as the story wrenches the heart. This is all the more disappointing as, later in the performance, she demonstrates her great range.
The poignant surrealism of The Chinese Lady teaches us yet another story of American injustice. This is a play about an indomitable soul that realizes, too late, that she was dominated from the outset.
Valiantly imagined by the playwright, Afong Moy’s perspective is implicitly representative of all the human potential ground up by imperialism’s vapid maw. At Three Bone Theatre, the tragedy seeps through Suh’s portrait of two real people who, to history, became ghosts.
Y’all Weekly is a reader-supported publication. Consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.