By David Greenham
The Central Square Theater artist and design team, in collaboration with CHUANG Stage, have created an effective, thought-provoking 90-minute journey into a depressing aspect of American history that had (and still has) its roots in xenophobia.
The Chinese lady by Lloyd Suh. Directed by Sarah Shin. Presented by Central Square Theater in partnership with CHUANG Stage, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge through December 11th.
Not long after he signed the Chinese Exclusion Act on October 1, 1888, President Grover Cleveland addressed a group of business leaders and insisted that “the experiment in blending the social customs and mutual racial idiosyncrasies” of American and Chinese cultures “in” was unwise in every way, apolitical, and detrimental to both nations.” He concluded that he was forced to conclude that “the Chinese are an undesirable people.” The riveting and challenging drama from playwright Lloyd Suh The Chinese lady speculates, both subtle and overt, as to whether our country’s attitudes have progressed so far after 130 years.
“I know that forgetting is human nature,” says Afong Moy (Sophorl Ngin) late in the play. At this point she is in her 60’s and has forgotten much about her life before she came to America – the first Chinese woman to come to this country. This story of a woman who took the stage name Afong Moy is based on true events. In 1834 she arrived as a 14-year-old girl from Guangzhou, China, who was sold by her father to American marketers/producers Nathaniel and Frederic Carne with an agreement that they would feature her in an exhibition in New York. This side exhibition was designed to stimulate western interest in selling Chinese silk, tea and other goods. Of particular interest was Afong Moy’s use of chopsticks and her tiny bound feet.
With bright eyes and enthusiasm, Ngin’s Afong is an instant hit. “My whole life is a performance,” she says with a sincere smile. She blinks as she explains the agonizing process of repeatedly breaking her toes, folding them under the soles of her feet, and tying them to achieve her eventual 4-inch span.
The script is set at New York’s Peale’s Museum, where she takes center stage in traditional costume and makeup. She speaks to us through her translator, Atung (Jae Woo). “Atung is irrelevant,” she states matter-of-factly. He readily agrees, “You don’t need to know who I am or where I’m from.”
Adults paid a quarter and kids ten cents to catch a glimpse of Afong Moy at Peale’s. Atung’s job is to translate as needed, to open and close the curtain, to provide “the performer” with a tray of food at the right time, and to remind her when it’s time to leave, which she solemnly and slowly circles around the curtain makes chair.
Afong initially believes she has a two-year commitment to fulfill her father’s agreement with the promoters. She sees herself as a kind of aesthetic ambassador, instilling in Westerners a sense of the beauty and elegance of their culture. Chopsticks are of course the preferred tool to help with eating. “I’m ambivalent about the fork,” she says, calling it “violent and easy.”
She’s even considering offering this showbiz opportunity to others in China. Maybe they should bring a 14-year-old western girl to China to exhibit there? She believes that the Chinese would be very interested in Western traditions such as women wearing corsets and the transatlantic slave trade.
With her stay lasting more than two years and her father not communicating with her, Afong suspects her role as a diplomat may not be as pure as she thought. As Atung points out, America’s interest in Chinese culture may have little to do with admiration: “There’s a difference between sharing and taking.”
Still, the marketing continues, and a tour of many other American cities is planned, including a visit to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell and then to the White House in Washington, culminating with a visit to “Emperor Andrew Jackson.”
Afong is in love with the Liberty Bell and tells the official founding story of America. When she learns that some of what she heard wasn’t entirely true, she admits she prefers the myths – they are “better and more beautiful than the truth”.
The visit to Andrew Jackson is one of the most disturbing moments in the play. Jackson, as portrayed by Atung (Woo), is portrayed as masterfully predatory, a boastful bully. He is fetishistic about Afong’s feet and asks to touch them. “It’s disgusting and mesmerizing at the same time,” he says in Atung’s exaggerated Western tones, “you’re beautiful in your ugliness.” He takes it as a compliment: “I’ve always enjoyed carnivals and freak shows.”
A visit to the Cincinnati Zoo takes the game to a deeper level. Afong finally realizes what Atung always knew: “If I’m in a cage, what kind of animal am I?” she wonders.
Written and premiered in 2018, the concerns of The Chinese lady have only become more relevant after Covid, a pandemic colloquially dubbed “The Chinese Virus” by our sitting president, who was only too willing to fuel the rising tide of American prejudice. Inevitably, increasing cases of hatred against Asians followed, some of which were violent. The Central Square Theater artist and design team, in collaboration with CHUANG Stage, have created an effective, thought-provoking 90-minute journey into a depressing aspect of American history that had (and still has) its roots in xenophobia.
Wisely, director Sarah Shin and her talented cast embrace the play’s increasing layers of grief and self-reflection. As more and more Chinese arrived during the 19th century, Afong’s presence declined. Curiosity wanes as public perceptions of Chinese immigrants change. Afong tries to see the influx of her compatriots – often as workers, non-union workers – as a good thing. “We’ll see how that works,” Atung replies flatly.
David Greenham is Associate Professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta and Executive Director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts curator in Maine for more than 30 years.