THE CHINESE LADY: Drama by Lloyd Suh. Directed by Mina Morita. Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, 3rd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94123. 415-441-8822 or www.magictheatre.org October 9 – November 3, 2019
The Chinese Lady is a personal and historical journey.
The play is based on a true story. When the elaborate Oriental curtain circling the elevated acting area lifts, the Chinese Lady is sitting within a cage without bars. It is decorated with a chair and artifacts to signify a Chinese room. She addresses the audience throughout the play starting in a mater-of- fact tone: “Hello. My name is Afong Moy. It is the year 1834. I am fourteen years old and newly arrived in America. . . I will be on display here at Peale’s Museum for your education and amusement at a price of 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.” An Asian male sitting off stage left says “I am Atung. I am irrelevant and I am the manservant and translator of Chinese to English and back again.”
From this point on Afong displays through words and limited action that she is on display and is proud of it although she goes through the ritual expected of her without rancor days, months and years similar to a caged animal. She only acknowledges that analogy when she visits the tiger caged in the Cincinnati Zoo during her extended tour through the United States. “If I am in a cage, what sort of animal am I?”
There is only a brief written history of Afong’s real life that ends in 1850 and Lloyd Suh fills in the play with significant historical facts and fanciful history. The ritual act of foot binding of young Chinese girls as signifying noble birth is described as a matter of fact tale with all the specific details included. Humor is injected when Afong “romanticizes” the history of tea and how it became entrenched English culture. There is a charming story with an analogy of the crack in the “Liberty” bell that was “created’ after independence day and her version of the story “better and more beautiful than the truth.”
Suh creates a play within a play when he has Afong and Atung act out the meeting with “Emperor” Andrew Jackson that amplify the fact “sometimes words or phrases do not directly translate.” There are references to the fact that gold corrupts as exemplified by European- American Andrew Jackson usurping the land in Georgia sending the real Americans to walk to the West.
In 1837 at age 17 the Opium Wars are beginning and Afong tells the audience “The China of my mind is more distant every day . . . and I become less and less Chinese, . . and closer to the inevitable day when you will stop looking at me altogether.” Afong’s personality becomes foremost. The character of Atung is not neglected. In part three of the six part play Suh writes a beautiful expressive monolog for him ending with “This has been my dream. Or at least the part of my dream I am willing to tell you.”
In 1849 the three of them (Afong, Atung and the room) are sold to PT Barnum and she was going to be replaced by “ Pwan Ye Koo from Peking. She is fourteen years old with bound fee.” There was a huge influx of Chinese searching for gold and they were violently mistreated but later in 1864 they were needed to build the Transcontinental Railroad to do the most dangerous jobs.
In 1882 Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act that is extended permanently in 1902 and Afong is regretful of now being old, irrelevant and no longer has the trappings of “The Chinese Lady.
Rinabeth Apostol gives a superb performance infused with insight, humor and even rage. It is heart aching as she removes the trappings of The Chinese Lady stripped bare by age and disappointment. Will Dao earns accolades for creating a fully rounded character that is a perfect balance for Apostol’s Afong. Mina Morita’s direction adds motion to the lengthy monologs delivered by the two member cast. Jacquelyn Scott’s scenic design and Abra Berman’s costume add the right amount of Oriental touch to the evening. Running time is 90 minutes without intermission and earns a should see rating.
CAST: Rinabeth Apostol as “Afong Moy” and Will Dao as “Atung.”
CREATIVEW TEAM: Director Mina Morita; Jacquelyn Scott (Set Design / Props Design); Abra Berman (Costume Design); Wen-Ling Liao (Lighting Design); Sara Huddleston (Sound Design); Liz Matos (Stage Manager) and Sonia Fernandez (Dramaturg / Local Casting.
Review by Kedar K. Adour, MD