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The Chinese Lady

And because I cannot have anything in this life you see, I cannot have anything. So it is natural that what I want is always that which is most forbidden. — Atung
Shannon Tyo (photo credit: Eloy Garcia)
A shipping container dominates Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Theatre's production of The Chinese Lady, immediately establishing images of freight, cargo and human trafficking. The box opens to reveal Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo,) the 14-year-old Chinese girl who has been bought, like the items displayed by Nathaniel and Frederic Carnes — purveyors of Oriental objet d'art.

It is 1834 and she seems to be the first Chinese female seen in the United States. Sold by her family from Guangzhou province for what was to be a two-year engagement, Afung Moy performs quotidian tasks such as eating with chopsticks, speaking Chinese, drinking tea and walking on four-inch bound feet. She does this twice a day, six days a week at Peale's Museum.

At first her lyrical thoughts about this exciting opportunity reveal a self-perception as a good-will ambassador from her people, someone sent to endear the Chinese culture to Americans. But the audience immediately discerns her role as one of cynical commercialism.

The Carnes view her as just another commodity to be cared for and sold for a staggering twenty-five cents, then fifty cents. Instead of returning home as promised, her authentic "Chinese room" is taken on by P.T. Barnum and she is added to his museum which displays freaks and oddities.

This engaging play by Lloyd Suh, co-produced by the Manhattan based Ma-Yi Theater Company, is unusual in construction and subject matter. Based on a true story about Afung Moy, Suh utilizes her performance to trace the evolution of the Chinese in the U.S. At first, like Moy, they are exotic curiosities and unthreatening. But with the exploitative immigration of workers to build the transcontinental railroad, hostility grows. The ingenuous recitation takes on an ominous tone as the lists of vigilante atrocities eventually lead to a complete shutdown of Chinese admitted to the U.S. In 1882 Chester Alan Arthur signs the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was not repealed until 1943. The parallels of animosity directed towards immigrants to present day cruelties are unmistakable.

As Moy recites and re-recites her rehearsed speech, Atung (Daniel K. Isaac)her interpreter, loosely translates her words— though not exactly in her flowery language which expresses deeper feelings and ideas. This is sometimes the basis for humor. If she could really speak the English we hear, she might become a person instead of an exhibit in which Afong is viewed but not seen.

As the years pass Afong's optimism fades. She is an outsider trapped in what has become a brutal culture, one which does not accept others easily. Her disappointment, pain and anger grow with this realization.

Tyo's body language underscores Moy's perceptions and reflect her darker inner drama. Afong struggles against the stereotypical impressions imposed upon her by the public and her "owners." Even the "Emperor", President Andrew Jackson whom she meets on her travels throughout the eastern states, cannot relate to her as anything but a talking "zoo-like" creature.

Atung her interpreter is "irrelevant" as he acts as her prop man and "not always accurate" interpreter. He, too, is invisible as a human being and to her as well. After all, she is a teen-aged star and he a lowly servant. Gradually as the years grind on he is her life line to the world outside her box, and indispensable. His gentle, accommodating demeanor hides a longing which breaks out in a breathtaking monologue as he longs for what he can never have. Afong's loyalty and affection for Moy grows over time but their lives are circumscribed by Chinese propriety and reticence. Both are isolated and denied marital and family ties by American laws.

Ralph B. Pena's direction, reminiscent of a stylized Chinese opera, creates a subtle tension through dramatic minimalistic movements. Enhanced by the fluid and color- saturated lighting of Oliver Wason, it intensifies the inner emotions of the actors and adds texture and nuanced meaning to their dialogue and actions.

Fabian Obispo's evocative music and sound effects convey the fragility of Afong Moy's plight and the delicacy of Chinese culture as a haunting reminder of both characters' memories and loss.

Junghyun Georgia Lee's period costumes are lush— flowing garments for the young Moy that evolve as she ages. The set design is representative of the most precious Oriental treasures on display and most likely prized over its human inhabitants.

Though there are few extant documents to flesh out the real Afong Moy's life, Suh and his cast and production colleagues have reconstructed a riveting and poetic 90-minute world premiere of historic interest and pointed political observations.

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The Chinese Lady by Lloyd Suh
Directed by Ralph B. Pena
Cast: Daniel K. Isaac (Atung) Shannon Tyo (Afong Moy)
Scene/Costume design: Junghyun Georgia Lee
Lighting design: Oliver Wason
Composer andSound design: Fabian Obispo
Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Barrington Stage Company, St. Germain Theatre, Pittsfield, MA
From 7/20/18; closing 8/11/18
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at July 25, 2018 performance

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