Directed by Helen Young, the TimeLine Theater Company’s Chicago premiere of Lloyd Suh’s THE CHINESE LADY is a poignant and well-crafted play centered on Afong Moy, who is said to have been the first Chinese woman to come to America. Although historical records don’t contain much definitive information about Afong Moy (we even know that wasn’t her real name), Suh uses the play’s well-structured 90 minutes to imagine what she might have said. to the public if she had had the opportunity. For at least 15 years from 1834 to 1850, Afong Moy was treated like a museum exhibit; Nathaniel and Francis Carnes brought it to the United States to present it to American audiences. Thus, Afong Moy was taken from her family and stripped of her agency. While Suh’s script cleverly allows Afong Moy to take over some of this agency, the play also demonstrates that in reality, this young woman didn’t have much say or control over her situation.
Mi Kang portrays Afong Moy beautifully, bringing immense depth of feeling to the character. She also has a heartbreaking relationship with Atung (Glenn Obrero), her translator. While Atung frequently states in the script that he is irrelevant, Afong Moy responds that without him, American audiences would have no idea what she is saying. In this way, Suh establishes a dichotomy between the two characters; while the audience can see Afong Moy, technically we can’t hear him. Similarly, Atung translates for Afong Moy, but he is not supposed to have his own identity or opinions. This layering allows Suh to reinforce issues of agency and identity within the piece. Kang and Obrero play off each other beautifully; the connection between the characters feels honest and real. Obrero also makes the most of his charming monologue.
Ultimately, the room belongs to Afong Moy, partly to point out that much of his own life did not belong to him. Each scene in the play features a different moment in Afong Moy’s life in the United States, from his arrival in 1834 at the age of 14 to the present day (how exactly this unfolds, I’ll surprise you) . Kang brings a touching amount of levity and humor to the part, especially in the earlier scenes. She delves into the obviously presentational requirements of the role; after all, the entire play takes place against Arnel Sancianco’s set clearly intended to represent the museum exhibit Afong Moy was forced to exhibit in. Kang has a crisp and enjoyable delivery during the play’s educational moments, in which she walks the audience through the various elements of her presentation as “The Chinese Lady.” But as the play progresses, Afong Moy’s relationship with the audience also evolves. Likewise, Kang’s performance becomes more emotional and raw, and it seamlessly follows the play’s emotional arc. As we see Afong Moy over the years, it also allows Suh to explicitly reference numerous incidents of exploitation of Chinese immigrants in the United States, as well as relaying the horrors of violence against them at the following the gold and opium rush. Wars. By using Afong Moy to relay these historic events, however, Suh is informing the audience but not knocking them over the head with the information.
It’s also particularly clever that TimeLine chose to stage THE CHINESE LADY to coincide with AAPI month. The play explores poignant themes of Chinese-American identity and, through the character of Afong Moy, the idea that sometimes the need to feel understood is just as important as providing understanding to others. While some of the scenes in the middle of the play look like they could be cut short, the final scenes provide the emotional heart of LA CHINOISE and pack a punch. Likewise, Kang and Obrero give strong performances that underscore the power of storytelling.
TimeLine Theater Company’s THE CHINESE LADY runs through June 12, 2022 at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont Avenue. Tickets cost between $42 and $57. Visit timelinetheatre.com.
Photo credit: Lara Goetsch
Commentary by Rachel Weinberg